The network’s Siju Prabhakaran and Anuradha Gudur speak about how its ‘Soul to Screen’ philosophy is helping them to create relatable content.
In Zee Telugu’s daily soap Padamati Sandhyaragam, Janaki’s character serves as a prototype for women navigating continuous change for their children. She symbolises the struggle faced by women in transitioning from traditional to modern roles, exemplifying the broader trend of larger families disintegrating into nuclear units. Her character, initially intertwined with her husband's identity, evolves as she steps out to champion her children's rights. Her life depicts the challenges and choices faced by women today.
Despite being a remake of the Zee TV show Sapne Suhane Ladakpan Ke, the makers put in extensive ground research to make it relatable to the audience. The portrayal of Janaki’s character is based on extensive interviews with women where they revealed their desire for content that challenges traditional perceptions.
“Men still perceive that girls need protection, while girls just want wings to fly. The men should be able to see the woman in their household a little differently. So the women wanted more shows like these,” says Anuradha Gudur, chief content officer, Zee Telugu and Zee Keralam.
The interviews revealed that post-COVID, viewers seek positivity in their shows. Further, it showed that youngsters today lead dual lives, that is, they adopt a different persona at home and outside. So the makers integrated these themes in the show. As a result, Gudur says, it managed to bring back a lot of audiences who do not regularly watch television.
Another show, Muthyala Muggu addresses the language challenges faced by talented young girls from vernacular schools in smaller towns when they move to bigger cities. This narrative also emerged from interactions with viewers.
In Jagadhatri, a show focused on an undercover cop, the portrayal of a dynamic cop resonated unexpectedly well with 50-year-olds, especially in smaller towns, due to an interest in unfamiliar workspaces. Notably, action-packed stunts outperformed domestic scenes in viewer ratings.
These are just some of the examples of how Zee Telugu is bringing together consumer insights to create more relatable shows as part of its ‘Soul to Screen’ initiative. The philosophy has been in practice across the network since the last two years. It involves a deep understanding of regional cultures, languages, and even dialects and ensures that the narratives align closely with viewers' lives, capturing the essence of their experiences in an authentic manner.
“‘Soul to Screen’ is our organisational philosophy embraced across markets, with a particular emphasis on Zee's strength in regional understanding. Our content creators understand the content creation business, but we also need to understand the audience and how their tastes are evolving,” says Siju Prabhakaran, chief cluster officer - Zee South.
The network gathers these insights through multiple levels of quantitative research, deep dialogue, tactical interventions through technology, in-person conversations across geographies where its teams travel across markets. Before launching a show, it conducts concept testing, tracks feedback using digital technology, and engages in deep dialogues with viewers to understand their evolving lifestyles and relationship dynamics. Prabhakaran says understanding both micro-level state dynamics and macro-level audience preferences is key to the approach.
“In broadcast TV, beyond ratings, we prioritise extensive research, a practice shared by many broadcasters but taken exceptionally seriously by us. This proactive approach, from top to bottom, ensures our content creators stay connected to the audience. The magic unfolds when these insights are seamlessly integrated into content creation, allowing creators to draw from personal experiences or find inspiration for relatable characters,” he says.
As television ratings provide a weekly update on a show's performance, it can quickly reach out to the audience for their feedback and make real-time decisions. The makers connect with the viewers through calls. The feedback mechanism also extends to tracking social media reactions and perceptions.
“Additionally, we conduct frequent deep dialogues with the audience, delving beyond surface-level feedback to ensure a comprehensive understanding of their perspectives. These interactions occur at least once every two to three months, especially when there is a high point in the show or a shift in the track,” Gudur adds.
It also puts technology to its best use. For example, it uses WhatsApp polls to ask the viewers yes/ no questions, like should a character behave in a certain way. Deep dialogues with such small interventions provide valuable insights.
Once it receives the feedback, it quickly acts upon it and changes the content design. Prabhakaran says it is this characteristic of rapid response that sets television content creation apart.
"In other categories, it takes time to implement user input, as there has to be a change in product design. This immediacy is the hallmark of television content creation," he says.
The insights are gathered by Zee's internal team themselves and it does not have any agency partners to do it. It has established a comprehensive setup with experts from the central team and specialised individuals within each regional channel. External partners have trained them on deep dialogue techniques as content creators initially do not possess these skill sets.
Prabhakaran says this direct engagement ensures a seamless connection between creating shows and understanding consumer responses.
"The beauty lies in the absence of intermediaries. Our content creators, marketers, and researchers have direct contact with consumers, fostering active listening and immediate feedback. Critical feedback reaches us unfiltered, allowing for swift adjustments to enhance the viewer experience," he says.
When it comes to taking content decisions, there may be a conflict between data and the gut instinct. In such a scenario, how does one strike a balance?
Gudur says, the data only helps make better decisions on the gut instinct and they're actually two sides of the same coin.
"While they may appear on different axes, they are aligned. The numbers, though accurate, require interpretation and context, a task achieved through deep dialogues with the audience. Educated decisions stem from merging both perspectives, acknowledging the numbers' accuracy while relying on audience insights for a comprehensive understanding."
Ultimately, this deep understanding of consumers enables the brand to adapt with the times and thus be more resilient and create long-term brand equity. "The ability to listen and adapt to change is crucial for sustainability, especially in an environment where companies and brands are facing tough challenges," Prabhakaran says.