Of all my client interactions, I enjoy the ones with foreign clients (often from head offices of their Indian companies) the most. There’s a specific reason for it. The amazement and the child-like inquisitiveness with which they react to research based on mass Indian audiences is so gratifying. Our primetime fiction content is beyond the realms of their comprehension, let alone appreciation. I was once asked: “So are you telling me that every single show that comes on weekdays primetime in India is a family drama?” My attempt to explain that ‘family drama’ is an overarching box with about 7-8 genres within it lasted only a few seconds.
However, one of the more relevant and genuinely thought-provoking questions I’ve been asked by broadcasters from outside India is: “Why don’t you have seasons in fiction shows in India? Why does everything go on and on and on?”
We know the stereotypical responses to this, don’t we? Three most common answers will be:
1. Indian audiences don’t know the concept of seasons. It is a foreign thing.
2. Only one out of four fiction shows actually succeeds, so why give it a season’s break and run the risk of not getting the audiences back.
3. It’s a drastic idea and we are not in a position to experiment right now.
All these responses are based on a natural tendency to exercise risk aversion. But neither the (ex) television executive nor the researcher in me approves of any of these answers. In fact, I have a robust argument here to prove why a seasonal approach to daily fiction will be a runaway success in India.
Primetime fiction in India is based on the premise of the audience, particularly women, being addicted (and I choose the word carefully) to watching the life of certain ordinary, people-like-us characters unfold in a dramatic, extraordinary manner. All the enduring success stories in the last 12 years have come from this central thought, which our foreign friends simplistically and erroneously classify as “family drama”.
Then why do serials begin to lose audiences? It is popular knowledge that shelf life of serials today is significantly lesser than what is was before 2008. Most successful serials peak within one year, and are well past their prime by the end of their second year. Very few like Balika Vadhu manage to complete four years of a successful run, not withstanding the hiccups on the way. Is addiction so ephemeral?
Serials lose audiences because there is an equally powerful force that counters ‘addiction’. I call it ‘extension’. If you have had the privilege (no other word describes the experience) of attending qualitative research on serials with housewives as the target audience, you will be familiar with two phrases: “Pehle achha tha, aajkal chewing (pronounced ‘chingum’) ki tarah kheench rahe hain” and “Story ko round-round ghuma rahe hain.”
Almost every serial becomes a victim of this ‘extension’ once it completes about 100 episodes. It becomes the proverbial chewing gum, or the vicious circle in which it has trapped itself. Only to come out momentarily before being trapped again.
Even before 2008, serials had extension issues. But at that time, options were far and few. The number of GECs were lesser, the number of TV channels even more so. The consumer was not spoilt for choices. She accepted extension as a part of her TV life. Today, she is exercising her choice and actively rejecting extension. Because she has another serial in the same slot, waiting with a sizeable dose of addiction that is currently free of extension.
We all know why extension happens. Daily serial production, with 260 episodes a year, is a breathless, never-ending assembly line. There is no time to take a break, because there are no episodes in the bank. Anecdotes of content being recorded on the evening of the telecast are so common; no one bats an eyelid when you narrate them, except the foreign friends of course.
It is humanly impossible to ideate at this fervent pace round the year. Even the smartest, most creative brains will operate at sub-optimal levels when consistently pushed against ridiculous timelines. And when that happens, extension, often unknowingly, is their best friend.
My estimate is that about 70% of an executive producer’s time (both at the production house as well as the channel) is spent on operational running of his/ her programmes. Only 30% is spent on ideation and creativity, which incidentally form the bedrock of the job profile.
Now imagine a scenario where a top-rated show comes in seasons – One season a year of about 4-6 months. But the team on the show works round the year to make this happen. Instantly, the extension issues will be solved. There will be scripts in the kitty and episodes in the bank. There will be time to breathe, to ideate and to execute with full strength. There will be no need to stretch the chewing gum or go on a merry-go-round trip.
What about addiction? For me, that’s the best part of it. Seasonal breaks can fuel addiction like nothing else can. Internationally, this has been proven beyond doubt. Common-sensically, if you take away what she is addicted to, she will yearn for it even more. And when she gets it back, she will see it with fresh eyes, with even more excitement than before. As long as the addiction center (read lead character) is unchanged, this will always work.
What’s the flipside? Only one. A seasonal approach requires a higher investment to make it deliver to its full potential, because you need to commit to a team on the show for the entire year, amortized over only about 100-130 episodes, instead of 260. But compare this incremental cost to the investment that’s sunk in a serial that fails, and you know that this is a non-issue.
Is someone likely to try this anytime soon? I will not bet on it for 2013 at least. Our GECs are more cautious and less experimental today, than they were a few years ago. The seasons idea may be too bold to buy into currently, given the musical chairs battle for the top four spots that they are currently engaged in.
But at some stage, the future should be more seasonal. Hopefully.
This post first appeared on mxmindia.com, on my weekly column ‘TV Trail’