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Why Is Indian TV Stuck In A Groove?

Big boys like Netflix and Amazon are making the same programming errors as the Indian TV channels, which is giving the local players time to rework their strategies

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When you have a potential audience of 700 million and an economy with all its hiccups still one of the fastest growing in the world it's strange that television is stuck in a rut. Both in its it programming quality and revenues the Indian TV Industry is till earning just $11 billion annually.  India incidentally is the only major market in the world where Print is still a major challenger to TV. It is all the more surprising now that the analogue signal has been switched off there is much less leakage in terms of subscription revenue. There are about 800 licensed TV channels in India and many more local cable channels, which make India among the top three countries in the number channels available. In a digital world where entertainment options from smartphones, OTT and other entertainment avenues are increasing by the day TV as a medium is being challenged. Network TV in US and some other developed markets is a under a threat from online viewing.  Over regulation is another drawback. The Government has in all these years never come up with a comprehensive Media let alone a Broadcast and has resorted to anachronistic laws to control the TV.

While terrestrial TV has a 60-year-old history (36 if you take a National Network is concerned) Satellite TV is about more than 25 year old. One would think by now we would have a mature market. Yet, it still appears that except for proliferation in number of sets and audience the Industry needs still vast improvement.  Like telephony, Indian cable and Direct-to-Home tariff is among the lowest in the world. The base tier being a mere Rs 150 per month. This makes Broadcasters heavily dependent on advertising. Unfortunately the advertisers are still using outdated metrics to buy media in an age other countries are using Big Data and Cultural anthropology to determine the efficacy of media messaging, subliminal or overt. Besides, the because of a large number of channels the smaller broadcasters and niche channels end up paying huge carriage fees to distribution platforms. A few brave attempts to break the mold of hackneyed programming have lost out because of their inability to pay carriage fee .The result is out of the 800 plus channels only about 150(mostly the belonging to the big broadcasters like Star, Zee, Sony, Network 18(Viacom included), Sun and Discovery and Times make money. Some regional players also manage to survive but others are fighting a losing battle. In the next year or two with enough bandwidth and speed Broadband will create a new eco system of an always on and on demand service its then the TV Industry will wake up from its self induced slumber.

Creativity is the fountainhead of the TV Industry and that's the area where Indian TV suffers the most. There's only one Network head, Uday Shankar who has somewhat of a creative background. Others like Sudhanshu Vats and and Raj Naik(Viacom), NP Singh (Sony), MK Anand(Times TV),Karan Bajaj(Discovery ) are marketing or finance specialists while Subhash Chandra-Punit Goenka(Zee TV), Kalli Puri(TV Today) and Kalanithi Maran (Sun TV) are owners/promoters . They are all good in some way or the other but by and large are creatively handicapped No wonder the entire business of information and entertainment is entirely marketing driven with very little leadership in on the creative side. There is practically zero innovation in programming. Bad adaptations of popular International formatted shows are touted, as breakthrough-programming .So heavily dependent and borrowed is TV fiction from films that it is a poor imitation of cinema.  The surfeit of fake award shows across channels is an example of this Bollywood influence .The less said about News the better. News channels are now competing with WWE and Comedy shows instead of delivering news. Nightly slanging matches are definitely not news and it is matter of time before fatigue sets in. Even the much-loved cricket has a sense of déjà vu on TV. How long can one endure Shalini Langer discuss cricket with top players who too are looking tired on screen.

The heart of the problem is the way programmes are commissioned.  Mediocre people decide what will work on the basis of some very basic market research.  Most commissioning editors are not in sync with social churning happening around them. Scared of trying something new and unfamiliarity with language and social mores results in pedantic and imitative programmes. I can count on my fingertips the innovations done in programming done in India. Antakshari, Bornvita Quiz Contest, Satymev Jayete , Star Yaar Kalakaar, Raja Rasoi Aur Anya Kahaniyaan and a few more are the ones which can be termed as original and innovative. A few formatted shows like Kaun Banega Corepati and Indian Idol too have worked. However most comedy shows are pathetic. If a badly scripted, poorly acted show like Tarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashma best we can produce Ooltah Chashma is the best we can produce it is a sad state.  Kapil Sharma's stand up is good in parts. Otherwise even established formats like Big Boss and dance with the Stars have been reduced to poor imitations with celebrities faking it through a retinue of shows. Dramas or Daily Soaps as they are referred to are generally over written melodramas with the worst possible Production Design and actors hamming away to glory. The stories are stretched beyond common sense and often tend to be regressive.  Once in a while you do get a good interview on a news Channel but otherwise its bluster and bias. If our TV Czars and Czarinas are proud of mediocrity one wishes them good luck.

While Data analytics are an important of the business world over in India poor slicing of inadequate viewership data and some elementary testing of ideas determines what goes on air. Most of those running TV channels have no idea of literature, especially in Hindi and/or other regional language and their reference points are base on past hits or foreign programming. Limited language skills have resulted in sarkari, Sanskritized Hindi being used on TV. Everyone from Shahrukh Khan ruins a great idea like the recent TED Talks on Star Plus to other participants speaking Hindi, which went obsolete years ago. Even the mythologicals use a language, which has no resemblance to colloquial language or even historically correct language. Whatever little spark one spots are because some small town writers still manage t o provide some authenticity to otherwise make believe language. Some channels like Epic, History, Nat Geo, FYI did show promise but have been steady losing steam either from lack of new programming or India specific programming. As I have often said Entertainment is largely ethnocentric and people want to tune in to shows close to their lives. Audience salience is very important which is usually lost in   elitist decision-making. Misplaced geographic emphasis results in caricatures of specific regions, people and language.

Am I being cynical or pessimistic? No merely realistic. The fact is with a rich heritage in story telling, drama, movies and literature I see no reason why we should be wallowing in mediocrity. If the Industry is punching much below its weight it must share the blame. Fortunately even big boys like Netflix and Amazon are making the same programming errors as the Indian TV channels, which is giving the local players time to rework their strategies. By merely increasing me too channels Networks will end up getting a smaller slice of the cake which alas is not growing bigger fast enough. Still when a half billion plus people spend over 3 hours a day watching the idiot box smart thinkers will look for ways to monetize this large audience.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Indian TV tv industry media and entertainment

Amit Khanna

The author is an experienced media and entertainment professional in India. He has worked in Theatre, radio, Music, journalism, television, films and Digital Media for 5 decades. He was also the founder chairman of Reliance Entertainment.

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