It has been a decade but the fire burns as brightly as ever. What makes MTV Roadies such a durable proposition?
Roadies has been called many things - a reality show, a travel show, madness, a competition and, of late, a cult show. But what is undisputed is that it is India's longest running reality show in the youth genre. Bring in other genres into the comparison and there are only Sa Ra Ga Ma and Antakshari (both from Zee) that can boast of such longevity. Roadies is a youth reality show where the contestants bike from one place to another performing various challenging tasks (laid out by the programmers) along the way. Victory depends on how he or she performs. And just as any other reality show, Roadies has its own audience (though not as big as one on a GEC), a digital presence, merchandising units and marketing campaigns.
The show has auditioned over 1.5 million people since 2003, touching over six million families. Not everyone thinks Roadies is in a niche, though. Laughs one media planner, "With 60 per cent of the population being youth, I don't understand how it is niche."
The major viewership of the show comes from the HSM markets, more importantly from Mumbai, Delhi, Punjab, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. In its 10th season, the show is being simulcast in 35 countries (including Australia, New Zealand, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Qatar, Singapore, US, UAE, Angola and Mozambique).
The format has also been adapted internationally in some Asian countries. Pakistan was the first one to adopt it, in 2010. The channel is in talks with a couple of other countries too, including Bangladesh and Indonesia.
Any talk about MTV Roadies is incomplete without its host Raghu Ram. Universally known as Raghu, the 37-year-old creative director and co-producer, MTV Roadies, is the brain behind the show. He is also the executive producer of the two reality television shows, MTV Roadies and MTV Splitsvilla. It is rumoured that Raghu - who is the face of the show, alongside Rannvijay Singh Sangha, the other host and the winner of Roadies Season 1 - had approached the channel in 2001 with the concept, but was rejected.
However, when Hero (then Hero Honda) wanted to launch its sub-brand, Karizma in 2003, MTV decided to go for it. The rest was history. Says Aditya Swamy, executive vice president and business head, MTV, "Roadies is a powerful youth brand."
The content of the show kept evolving season after season, because the generations have evolved. It is unanimously believed that the attitude of Roadies in any season, depicts the attitude of the youth of that period. The show starts with auditions. Forms are filled and contestants are shortlisted for group discussions and personal interviews, after which the final Roadies are selected from each city. In the 5th season came Roadies Battleground, a digital initiative, through which the winner gets an opportunity to become a part of the season and the journey, by getting a direct entry. Once the Roadies are finalised, the journey begins. Contestants are given tasks, of which there are two types - money tasks (the participants get an opportunity to earn a certain amount) and performance task (participants can vote each other out). The one who survives the vote outs and performs tasks well, wins.
Divya Radhakrishnan, managing director, Helios Media, says, "The evolution of the show is a big reason for its success. Roadies 1 and 2 weren't as spicy and "reality TV" as the show is now, in its 10th avatar. Raghu as the main protagonist (or antagonist if you prefer), and then the advent of the twin villains, has given the show fresh twists and turns every season, to keep the old audience surprised and new audience hooked."
Each season of the show undergoes production for about 10-11 months. The actual competition takes place for 40-60 days and is telecast for close to 20 weeks. Says Swamy, "The brand was vibrant enough to be taken beyond TV. Roadies first became a TV+digital brand. Post this, we extended it to auditions screening, merchandising, anthem and then created our own website."
The language and tonality of the show is in accordance with the youth of the day. Raghu was a firm believer in the longevity of the show. "After season four, my twin brother Rajiv told me to stop making it, because Roadies had reached a height and we were worried that it might fall if the next one we made, didn't meet expectations. But my craving for more roadies and raw creativity kept me going," he says. Rajiv Laxman, Raghu's brother was part of Season 6, 8 and 9.
Once the show grew in popularity, came the MTV vs Roadies debate. P M Balakrishnan, COO, Allied Media, suggests that MTV as a brand rubs off on the show. The reach that Roadies gets on air is due to the fantastic distribution network that MTV (Viacom 18) has. Observes a media planner, "Roadies has a lot of MTV-ness to it and it's important for the show."
Swamy seconds this by mentioning that the relationship and need is mutual. Many believe that the show has outgrown brand MTV, while others say that it would not be fair to make such comparisons. The argument for the former case, is based on the fact that the youth genre itself has seen a decline. But everyone agrees that the passion behind the show comes through clearly. That is probably one of the reasons why Roadies is referred to as a cult show.
It hasn't done badly on the TVR front either. The cumulative reach of the show has increased over the years. Roadies Season 7 was watched by nearly 60 million Indian viewers and this grew by 34 per cent to over 80 million viewers, by the eighth and ninth seasons. So far, the 10th Season has reached 35 million viewers, in five episodes and the channel is expecting to cross the 100 million mark.
What lies behind Roadies' decade-long success? "Roadies is fun, it's popular. The content is engaging and the format has been evolving gradually. The channel is doing that smartly," says a media expert. Another strength is the team, which has remained the same. Getting Rannvijay as a co-host was a masterstroke, say media experts. Rannvijay could attract female viewership; otherwise Roadies would have had only a male following. Raghu is the tough judge, and Rannvijay the friend, philosopher and guide for the participants.
While it is true that many of the participants during the past seasons have got into showbiz (see chart), the show doesn't promise a career. But the fact that anybody can be a roadie is what attracts attention. The challenge that the team faces, points out Raghu, is budgets. According to him, it is always short on budget.
Merchandising for Roadies started in the sixth season. Last year, retail stores sold Rs. 60 crore worth of Roadies merchandise (the channel gets a percentage of the sales). Roadies branded products (like stationery, clothing, eyewear and footwear) are available in about 5,000 retail outlets in 50 cities. These range from categories such as shoes (a tie-up with Mochi), jewellery (Pretty Woman, Dazzling Jewels), gifts and novelties (Archies), helmets (Steelbird) and notebooks (Bilt).
Sandeep Dahiya, senior vice-president, consumer products and communications, Viacom18 says that the channel hasn't partnered with any e-commerce player, but some of the licensees have aggregated deals with a few shopping websites.
Merchandising contributes 7-9 per cent to the revenue generated, but could have been more. Says Dahiya, "The licensing market is unorganised and piracy makes it worse." Marketers believe that there are two emotions attached to buying a Roadies product - passion for the brand or that wearing Roadies is 'cool'. Says one media planner, "This is another plus for MTV. It's an expert in ensuring youth touchpoints on various platforms."
With more screens available, MTV unleashed Roadies Battleground, an online extension for auditions, that ensured engagement and confirmed traction on it. It has garnered about one million auditions in the last five years. There was recognition too.
Last year, MTV Roadies won the "most social TV show in the world" title at the Mashable Awards. The show has 5.6 million Facebook fans and 300 million views across YouTube, its website and Mobile TV. MTV has hiked overall digital marketing budgets from Rs. 1 crore, four years ago, to Rs. 5 crore, now.
It has not been roses all the way. Though the show has managed to influence and lead the youth, Radhakrishnan of Helios Media opines that the overt bravado and visible negativity don't always depict the attitude of the young Indian and hence, it backfires in some segments.
The frankness, outspokenness and tonality attracted enough problems for the show and, in one case, two years ago a political outfit went after the anchors in Pune, opposing the use of derogatory language.
But Raghu is clear, "If elders had to approve of the show, it would have never seen 10 seasons." Roadies has travelled five continents - Australia, Asia, Africa, South America, North America - and this season is being shot in the North-East.
In a nutshell, the persona of Roadies revolves around 'Being Yourself'. Roadies will probably be on the road for a long time to come. As Raghu explains, after each season, the question that arose would be: "Should we do another?" Despite a "No" being the first answer, the show rolled on. Ten years down the line it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect another decade of fun.
(Based on additional interviews with Ajit Varghese, Maxus; R.S. Suriyanarayanan, Lintas Initiative and Zubin Tatna, MEC)
A Note From the Editor
Is music the single thing that best defines youth interest or identity?
When MTV first came to India in 1996 the content consisted entirely of western music. That was the heyday of the brand worldwide. In any case, this was the 1990s and Indians were easily seduced by 'foreign' brands, and certainly one as sexy as MTV. That bubble went pop when rival Channel V used a mix of Hindi film music and peculiarly Indian humour to charm Indian youngsters: here was something they could totally relate to. Channel V's entry shook MTV down to its socks.
As Indian music began to spread across channels, it soon became evident that there was little to distinguish one channel from the next. Viewers would surf endlessly until they hit the place with the right song. How could MTV get loyalty? Answer: create programming that would get people to stay and, moreover, distinguish it from its rivals.
In this lay the origin of Roadies and when Hero Honda was looking for a property that would let it connect with the young, it created the context for the show's birth.
Chance and determination make a powerful combination. MTV has been able to take a one-off opportunity and build it into a truly solid property - so solid, in fact, that according to some, Roadies may now be a bigger asset than MTV. That's a bit like comparing a child with the parent - unfair but tempting nevertheless. The same situation exists for some other media brands, the most obvious one being Filmfare: one could argue that Filmfare Awards keeps the name of the magazine alive more than the other way round.
The other issue is to find the one thing that defines youth. Is it music? Or sports? Or clothes? Or food? Or online chatter? Or just hanging out? Whatever it is, youth-oriented channels have quite a job trying to get them to watch TV. As it is, the young are mostly out of the home. When they are in, they may well be online or talking to friends. If they are watching television, they are more likely to watch a general entertainment channel than a youth-oriented one because there is only one TV set at home. All in all, running a youth-oriented channel successfully is one helluva job.