Anirban Roy Choudhury

"Economy is going to decide the content challenges more than the Coronavirus": Manisha Sharma, Viacom18

The chief content officer of Viacom18 speaks about the programming challenges and changes in consumption behaviour post COVID-19.

Viacom18's general entertainment channel (GEC) Colors has announced the launch of a new show 'Ishq Mein Marjawan', which will air during prime time. It is one of the first new shows to hit the small screen since the television industry’s lockdown-induced hiatus.

Filming was banned in India, and GECs that otherwise aired a fresh episode daily, had to rely on archival content. Though fresh episodes and new shows have started hitting the airwaves, the consumption behaviour in Indian households has witnessed a major shift.

Earlier, the broadcasters knew that during prime time, i.e., after sunset till 11 p.m., female audiences kept themselves free to watch their daily dose of escapism. Manisha Sharma, chief content officer, mass entertainment, Viacom18, says that prime time and non-prime time, weekends and weekdays have all changed their meaning in the aftermath of the lockdown.

She fears that the television audiences have got busier with household chores, which could possibly take a bit out of the viewership pie. In an interview with afaqs!, Sharma speaks about the programming challenges and change in consumption behaviour...

Edited excerpts:

You announced the launch of a show, the first one after the pandemic. How is shooting, post lockdown, different?

There is constant sanitisation on the set. We’re shooting with less number of people. Then there is a standard operating procedure (SOP) that we all need to follow. To avoid new people coming to the set daily, we have relocated many of our crew members to somewhere close to the set. And then we’re constantly monitoring all of it. Despite all that, we are very glad to have come back on air.

"Majority of the TV viewers do not have the luxury of binge-watching shows on Netflix or Amazon"
Manisha Sharma

Does shooting with less number of people pose a creative challenge when it comes to the final output?

It slows down the entire process, but it’s not a creative challenge yet. At this point in our lives, television has become full of dance, shaadi, engagement, and similar big scenes at large setups. Because of the SOP, we have to let go off those…But after three months of lockdown, we are happy to return. Not doing those scenes can be called a creative challenge, but this is something we can manage without. However, compared to nothing on-air, shooting with the SOP is a delight.

"We are worried about people coming back to their earlier habits"
Manisha Sharma

The country is going through a tough time right now. Is it necessary for the show’s storyline to reflect this? Would you stay away from celebrations, excitement?

Because a lot is happening outdoors and we all are isolated, the people in this country are really nervous. We don’t know what the future holds for us, and the news channels are giving us our daily dose of Corona cases going up and up and up... making everything look bad and bad and more bad...

I am not sure about the need for gloom, instead, we want to entertain people and bring a smile to their faces. We want people to engage with our characters. Our attempt should be to ensure that when people watch television, at least for those few minutes, their minds are off (from) the stressful things happening around the world right now.

People got hooked to mythological shows, and those are at the back of the mind of your viewers, who stayed away from soaps for a while. How do you get them back to watching soaps?

We got switched off because of the pandemic, and now, we have resumed. In the interim, ‘mythos’ have done well on GECs, but at the same time, repeat channels (free-to-air like Dangal) have run some fiction shows which have also done well.

People are habituated to watching daily soaps and that might have got disrupted. But, I am hoping that with fresh content on air, people will come back. How long it will take, remains to be seen, but it will take a while.

Could you shed some light on the disruption in the viewership pattern?

Since the outbreak, there are no weekdays and weekends, there’s no prime time and non-prime time. We also need to realise that even though people are at home, they are inundated with household work and their professional engagements. So, we’re worried about people coming back to their earlier habit, and at this stage, I hope it happens sooner.

During the period when you did not put up new episodes on air, your audience got exposed to OTT and on-demand viewership. Do you see them drawing an immediate comparison, or migrating?

I am very conservative about these things. I sit in Mumbai today, and the net speed is so slow that it disrupts me multiple times when I’m working from home. Most TV viewers don’t have the luxury of binge-watching shows on Netflix or Amazon or other OTT platforms.

Apart from the network issues, there is also a cost attached to it. I believe our viewers are still very much there. My bigger fear isn’t about them getting engaged with OTT, but (them) getting busy with their household work, children's homework...

A lot of GEC programming reverberates around non-fiction, reality shows... Are they possible in the current situation?

Getting contestants from all across India is a challenge. But then, there are shows like ‘Bigg Boss’. Remember, it is a format where the contestants are already in a lockdown. So, it won't be much of a challenge from the point of view of ensuring their safety.

Dance and singing shows will be a challenge because you are getting contestants from all across the country. The bigger challenge now is the economy and that is going to decide the content challenges more than the Coronavirus outbreak.

It’s not a challenge only for Colors, but for everyone. The business disruption that has happened will force us to think out of the box because, at the end of the day, we can’t afford to make losses on everything we do.

Even if you do reality shows, will you have to make a few tweaks to the formats, like doing away with the live audience, or maybe connecting with them virtually?

We will have to make a lot of these tweaks. See, these TV challenges are interesting and can be dealt with. We can do a dance, or singing, show without the live audience, and the viewers sitting at home will still enjoy it.

We need a live audience because it energises the contestants, similar to how the spectators at the stadium energise the cricketers. But now we’re seeing a lot of sports being played without the audience, and we can do the same with reality shows, too.

Last, has shooting in the middle of a pandemic added to the cost? Things like SOPs and restrictions, compulsory crew insurance, etc.

Yes, it does add on to the cost, but it is a worthy long-term investment. It is better to invest in safety now rather than be sorry later. What we’re happy about is that we’re back on air. At least the business is getting back on track.