Here are some expert theories.
Hindi general entertainment channels, or GECs as they're more popularly known, are very important to broadcast networks. These channels get a disproportionate amount of the network's total advertising, and the health of a network is very closely linked to the health of its most popular Hindi GEC.
In India, the overall TV viewing universe is growing, but within that, the viewership share of Hindi GECs has fallen. The genre has been doing poorly, as compared to others like news, movies, kids' channels, and even regional GECs. According to KPMG, the Hindi GEC genre accounted for 27.7 per cent ('18,057 crore) of the total AdEx on TV ('65,190 crore) in FY2018. During 2015-18, the viewership share for Hindi GECs fell from 28.5 per cent to 22.1 per cent of total TV viewership, as per Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC) India.
It's fair then to dub it a crisis if the world of Hindi general entertainment on television has been struggling to deliver hit shows over the past three years. What's the problem? Is it a creative block? Is the market too crowded? Does the reason tie back to budgets? Or changing audience tastes, perhaps?
Or does it have something to do with BARC's sampling methods? Or something else, entirely? Well, it's most likely a combination of several factors. This article attempts to explore the reasons for this dearth of hit shows.
But first, a background. Hindi GECs have been around for years. The popular programmes from the 1990s include Dekh Bhai Dekh, Tara, Shanti; around the turn of the century came shows like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kahani Ghar Ghar Ki and CID. In the last decade, shows like Balika Vadhu, Udaan, Pavitra Rishta, Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai (which will complete 10 years in January 2019) and Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah (which reached 2,600 episodes on November 13, 2018) came our way. Colors' Naagin, launched in 2015, has been a season-based show but has, time and again, met success despite losing its protagonist Mouni Roy to Bollywood. The third season of Naagin is on air; as per BARC ratings for Week 47, in the Urban market, the show is No 1.
Zee TV found a hit in Kumkum Bhagya in 2014 (a daily soap about a group of strong women living together in a matriarchal family); the spin-off Kundali Bhagya in 2017 (a romantic drama), has been liked too. Barring these successful shows, the Hindi general entertainment factory has stopped producing new hits.
Which is not to say they didn't try. Some offbeat themes did emerge, for example Sony Entertainment Television's Beyhadh, a romantic psychological thriller (273 episodes), Kuch Rang Pyaar Ke Aise Bhi, a romantic drama (414 episodes), Jaat Ki Jugni, an action drama (70 episodes), and Yeh Moh Moh Ke Dhaagey, a romantic drama (109 episodes). But the shows did not pull the kind of ratings the channel expected and were discontinued. Colors tried something different with Beypannah, a romantic mystery drama, this March; the show entered BARC's top 5 but soon slipped and eventually went off air on November 30. The channel also launched Silsila Badalte Rishton Ka, about an extra-marital affair, this June; it is being moved from TV to Viacom18's OTT platform Voot.
ZEE TV launched Zindagi Ki Mehek in 2016; it went off this September after 505 episodes. The channel launched Piyaa Albela in 2017; it went off air this August. Star Plus too has seen its share of trouble, for instance, Humko Tumse Ho Gaya Hai Pyaar Kya Karein in June 2016 (which went off air by October) and Kuch Toh Hai Tere Mere Darmiyaan (launched late in 2015, but taken off air after 83 episodes in January 2016). In 2016-17 the channel launched several new shows like Tamanna, Pardes Mein Hai Mera Dil and Silsila Pyaar Ka - all went off air after a short life.
An obvious reason is the temptation to repeat a formula that works. In a 2017 interview with afaqs! Reporter, Punit Misra, chief executive officer, Zee Entertainment Enterprises, said, "... we need to spend a lot more time figuring out a way to break out of the tyranny of sameness, something we see today. One thing works... it is repeated everywhere. We need to create more compelling content."
Shailesh Kapoor, founder and chief executive officer, Ormax Media, a media consulting firm, believes the audience is unwilling to invest three-four years in a fiction show anymore. "The time for shorter shows has come. Shows could be split across 10-12 seasons. Or, some stories could be told in just one season. Either way, the audience can't be expected to watch the same show for years. That's where non-fiction has grown (KBC, Bigg Boss), especially as compared to daily fiction, because people know it will end within three to four months..." Ideally, the gap between seasons should be less than six months, some experts feel.
Often, people reject weekday fiction even before a show is launched, because they have an idea what it's about. With the rise of digital and clutter on WhatsApp, people don't have the patience to give something a chance, and are quick to reject. And it doesn't help that most shows are replicas of the ones that preceded them.
Recent exceptions have been shows like Star Bharat's six-month-old mythology-based show Radha Krishna and Star Plus' barely two-month-old show Kulfi Kumar Bajewala about a little girl. "Whether they'll sustain or not, we will know in a few months. At least they're not joint-family dramas," Kapoor adds. It's not like channels haven't experimented with fresh storylines. The experimentation, he decodes, has been at the cost of relevance. Bizarre stories about people one can't connect with won't work just because they're unconventional; ironically, even experimentation must be balanced and familiar. This is a writing and production challenge. The makers of daily soaps, who're churning so many episodes around the clock, don't get time to invest in writing and storytelling.
If people crave newness, then why do they patronise a simple, conceptually ordinary show like Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah? Asit Kumarr Modi, founder, Neela Telefilms, that produces the show, attributes its popularity to the makers' attempts to improvise the content over the last decade. "Every time there is a different story within the show; the generation of viewers has moved forward, so the content should appeal to them," he says, clarifying that "new" needn't mean "difficult for the masses to understand" or "similar to OTT".
Channels will do well to start working on what Modi terms "limited series", that is, shows with about 150-200 episodes. Taarak Mehta, he concedes, is an exception.
According to Yash Patnaik, founder, Beyond Dreams Entertainment, (producer of Sony's Kuch Rang Pyaar Ke Aise Bhi), there's an undeniable ongoing paradigm shift in the Hindi GEC space. And whenever there's a shift like this, "there's bound to be some effect, some positive and some not so positive. I think this is a 'phase of correction'."
It's not just TV viewers but all of India that's changing, he points out. Lifestyles are changing in the world we inhabit; we're moving from single-screen theatre to multiplexes, single shops to malls, two-wheelers to four-wheelers, etc. "This (general entertainment on TV), like any other medium, will find a new voice for sustenance and growth," predicts Patnaik. On the content side of the discussion, he swears by characters that resonate with viewers, stories that connect with people at a "generic" level, and plots that astonish, even stun. "We need more writers," he muses.
In general, in the world of TV, the fear at the makers' table is: 'What if the audience doesn't come back?' or 'What if they forget the plot by the time the next season is out?'
Attributing the slowdown to the larger competitive scenario, Rajan Shahi, founder, Director's Kut, (producer of Star Plus' Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai) says, "There is too much competition now. If the concept doesn't work, in two-three months, the shows are taken off." Add to this the movement of youngsters towards digital platforms and content. The scene is about to get even tougher for TV channels looking to grab the attention of this segment of viewers.
He adds, "We have to evolve with time, re-structure our shows and merge the worlds of 'massy' audiences and those that respond to specific sensibilities. Somehow new shows are just not working and that is worrisome for the makers, because we spend so much time - eight to 12 months - developing these shows..."
And he speaks from experience. His Kuch Toh Log Kahenge for Sony Entertainment Television and Tere Sheher Mein for Star Plus were critically acclaimed and visually quirky, respectively, but neither got the desired numbers. And when experimentation is not rewarded with numbers - well, it's a scary place for any producer to be caught in. And these soaps are expensive to make. Typically, a daily soap requires an investment of '8-15 lakh per episode. Maybe the cost of experimentation is just too high and the lure of safe choices, too comforting to forgo.
The other side of the table...
Turns out, the success rate of a new TV show is typically in the area of 14-15 per cent. Ashish Golwalkar, senior creative director - programming, Sony Entertainment Television, says, "If you are launching 10 shows there is bound to be only one that will be a hit; others will either be average or below average shows. If you are launching three shows and if it yields a 2+ TVR, then you are really lucky."
Hindi GECs have lost share by more than six per cent since 2015. Could this have anything to do with changes in BARC's sampling and measuring systems?
Golwalkar attributes the loss of Hindi GEC eyeballs to the OTT content wave. He says, "A lot of catch up TV is happening on OTT platforms and that doesn't get monitored by BARC. A lot of our content goes on JIO TV, for example. I am not saying GEC viewership has grown. Yes, it has definitely dropped but not to the extent BARC is showing." It's the overall decline of the GEC segment than the unfavourable success ratio of new shows that worries him.
Aparna Bhosle, business head, Zee TV and FTA GEC, believes people go looking for 'other options' only if they're disappointed by what GECs have to offer. "The 9-10 pm slot is when people like to watch TV..."
TV soaps, unlike OTT shows, tend to focus more on the story arc than individual character-building. This, she feels, increases the chances of failure.
"When launching a new show, success is a function of many aspects, like the time slot, the amount of promotion, the marketing budget, the story, but I believe if you take the time to define your characters well, the show does well, because it all boils down to powerful characters," says Bhosle, attributing the popularity of Kundali Bhagya and Kumkum Bhagya to this effort.
Should GEC content mimic OTT sensibilities more? No way. One can hardly compare the two mediums at 'science of content' level. But fact is, OTT will definitely stir up the content that makes up the Hindi GEC pool on Indian television. It will force programming heads and show producers to challenge the way they approach their content. And that might not be a bad thing at all.
(This article was first published in afaqs!Reporter on December 1.)
A Note From the Editor
Few months back, Shailesh Kapoor, head of Ormax Media, said to me during an interview: "... Over the last seven to eight years GECs have been in standstill mode. After 2010-11, content innovation in Hindi -unlike regional- GECs stopped. The only real evolution in Hindi GECs is - non-fiction has got more acceptability. But that's more like a default advantage given to non-fiction because fiction has not evolved..."
This fortnight, we ponder the 'Why?' of this. The experts we spoke to gave us a range of possible reasons. If it's a creative block, how come it's affecting all Hindi GECs at once - and what's causing it? Is the market over-competitive and over-crowded? Are the writers not experimenting enough - and if they are, are their risks paying off? Perhaps it has something to do with production budgets?
The overarching theme that emerged from all our interviews is: Audience tastes are changing. Not just in the context of what they like to watch on TV, but in general. As one producer put it, "India is changing". The way we live, eat, dress and entertain ourselves has undergone a massive transformation.
Another question worth raising is: Has the very definition of a 'hit' on TV changed? Surely the parameters can't be the same as they were ten -or even three- years ago, can they?
While the growth of OTT content may have little to do with the absence of hits on Hindi GECs, this new world will definitely stir things up. One of the channel heads we spoke to for this article said something that stayed with me - the makers of TV programmes, unlike OTT shows, focus more on the larger story arc than on the personalities of the characters.
As my boss puts it, characters on TV have always been 'Fair & Lovely-ised', because they're designed to please the entire family, a diverse set of viewers. Time to change?""ASHWINI GANGAL