Anirban Roy Choudhury

As filming halts in Maharashtra, producers shoot daily soaps in Hyderabad, Goa, Gujarat

The ban on filming in Maharashtra is till April 30. Some channels are airing episodes of 'Ramayan', 'Balika Vadhu' from archives while few continue to film fresh content.

Last summer, the former boss of Star and Disney India, Uday Shankar had called for a "tectonic shift" in the way the television industry functions. He called for a technological revolution that substitutes the humongous presence of human beings in sets where the serials are shot. He had stressed the importance of having a bank of episodes for each show and he had insisted that the industry must not depend entirely on one region. He was speaking when the lockdowns were on and the channels were airing from the archives as they could not film new episodes.

As of yesterday, episodes of 'Ramayan' have been sourced from the archives and are already being telecast by Star Bharat. Colors has the episodes of 'Balika Vadhu' on air. Star Plus announced it will telecast live Indian Premier League matches on Sundays. Programming heads of all major channels are burning their midnight oil figuring out the gas they are left with.

It has been almost a year since Shankar shared his opinion on the necessary changes. He had ended his address by saying, "We are staring at a cold, dark winter." Earlier this month, Maharashtra Government imposed a lockdown in the state, and the Hindi General Entertainment Genre, the largest in terms of viewership as well as ad-spends, finds itself in the same crisis it was hit with last year.

The lockdown, as announced will last at least till April 30. The country has reported more than three lakh cases in the last 24 hours and Maharashtra continues to be the hotbed contributing the highest. What will happen after April 30, is still uncertain but the "television industry cannot afford one more hiatus," says a former broadcaster.

At stake is not just the Rs 6,000 crores of advertising money earmarked to be spent on the Hindi General Entertainment Channels, but human behaviour. Experts feel, with digital video streaming platforms offering on-demand viewing option, the appointment viewing phenomenon is under a "constant challenge."

"When it comes to non-live content, television channels through cable or DTH are not the preferred medium of the top of the pyramid anymore. They are all connected television sets and shows, films are streamed at leisure. But the mass still watches shows on television, if there is one more patch of re-runs, a significant part of that target group might get habituated to over-the-top content, which is a deep concern for the industry at this stage," said a senior sales executive at a television network.

It is worth mentioning here that the Smart TV sets crossed the five million mark and grew their base by around a million homes.

To back the argument, the executive points at the recently released FICCI report. According to the FICCI-EY report 'Playing by new rules, the TV industry declined 13 per cent from Rs 78,700 crore to Rs 6,85,00 crore in 2020. The largest M&E segment saw a 21.5 per cent fall in advertising revenues in 2020 to Rs 2,51,00 crore on "account of highly discounted advertising rates during the lockdown months."

The report states, subscription declined 7 per cent to Rs 43,400 crore due to the "continued growth of free television, reverse migration and a reduction in average revenue per user due to the part implementation of NTO 2.0."

And hence the show must go on! Broadcasters have decided to spend at least 30 per cent more per episode and relocate the sets out of Mumbai. 'Mehndi Hai Rachnewali' and 'Imlie' of Star Plus are now being shot in Hyderabad. 'Apki Nazron Ne Samjha' cast and crew were spotted in Goa while the top channel's 'Shaurya Aur Anokhi Ki Kahani' has set a base in Umbergaon. The marathon show, 'Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai' which has aired 3228 episodes and 'Anupamaa' have shifted to Silvassa.

Like Star, Zee TV has also relocated the sets. 'Kundali Bhagya', 'Kumkum Bhagya', 'Tujhse Hai Raabta', 'Qurbaan Hua' and 'Apna Time Bhi Aayega' have moved to Goa. 'Kyun Rishton Mein Katti Batti' is now being filmed in Surat while 'Teri Meri Ikk Jindari' in Jaipur. 'Hamariwali Good News' crew is in Haryana.

Sony is telecasting from its bank of episodes and according to Rohit Gupta, Sony Pictures Networks India chief revenue officer - ad sales and International Business, the broadcaster is still chalking out a plan. His opinion is that the brief lockdown in Maharashtra (till April 30) will not have an impact on ad sales, however, he said it is too early to comment.

Colors has shifted 'Molkki' in Goa, 'Choti Sardaarni' in Delhi, 'Barrister Babu' to Rajkot and a couple of other shows are about to move out of Mumbai too.

As filming halts in Maharashtra, producers shoot daily soaps in Hyderabad, Goa, Gujarat

So, that is like Goregaon film city, spread across six states, all of a sudden. The movement is challenging say producers. "Luckily for me, I was filming two Telugu shows and therefore had space in Hyderabad," says producer Sandip Sickand, who films 'Mehndi Hai Rachnewali' for Star Plus.

He along with his partner first flew to the spot for recce and after they chalked out the place, only the core crew shifted to Hyderabad, informed Sickand. "All of them were tested for COVID19 and after getting a negative on RT-PCR, they were given access to the sets," the producer adds.

Sickand was filming in Kholapur, Maharashtra but his storyline was in Hyderabad and thus, according to him, "it was not a big creative challenge." He had to explain to the viewers why the protagonists are living in a different house.

From the sets of Kumkum Bhagya in Goa
From the sets of Kumkum Bhagya in Goa

Amir Jaffar who along with Sonali Jaffer runs Full House Media which is producing, 'Apki Nazron Ne Samjha' for Star Plus, 'Qurbaan Hua' and 'Tujhse Hai Raabta' for Zee TV, moved to Goa. "Identify the spot, the core crew and move to the new location," it is simple, says Amir Jaffar.

His Star Plus show was building up for a marriage sequence and the lockdown got announced. Now they have moved to a new environment in Goa, "So we turned it into a destination wedding and that worked out well for us," he says. In other shows, it all were minor "tweaks". However, like Sickand, he too feels it is not a massive creative challenge.

Destination wedding sequence, 'Apki Nazron Ne Samjha' at Goa
Destination wedding sequence, 'Apki Nazron Ne Samjha' at Goa

If the lockdown in Maharashtra gets extended, Jaffar says, the crew is settled enough to continue shooting beyond April 30. Though he would prefer to return to Mumbai, "The best place to shoot is Mumbai where we have our own sets and the cast and crew have their own place to live," opines Jaffar.

The edit team of most production houses continues to be stationed in Mumbai. The reels are uploaded and the files get downloaded and edited at workstations in Mumbai. "In case we are unable to upload, we ship hard disks to the edit room," informs Amir Jaffar.

This relocation, though is not a herculean creative challenge, it ups the cost manifold. A broadcaster on condition of anonymity, informs that the spends have gone up by 50 per cent. There is a cost associated with the resort, hotel or studio where the episodes are shot. Then the hospitality cost which includes food and lodging of the entire cast and crew.

"It is not an economically viable solution and so, we are hoping that the ban will be lifted with effect from May 1," concludes the broadcaster.

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