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'Soaps Will Never Lose Their Market In India'

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In a conversation with BW | Businessworld's Jinoy Jose P., Shoma Munshi, author of 'Remote Control' explains how everyday events influence television programming and striking features of television in India over the years

Your earlier work was on prime time soap operas on Indian television. Now you have gone deeper into the content. How long you’ve been following the Indian TV, and what prompted you to come up with this new book?
I have been a fan of Indian television for as long as I can remember. Not the purely Doordarshan times of Chitrahaar and the Sunday B&W movie, though those were fun too! This book, however, owes everything to my beloved father, Wg Cdr Anil Chandra Munshi. It is he who first suggested that I write a book on the new and fast-paced developments in Indian television in the new millennium, following up on my previous book Prime Time Soap Operas on Indian Television. This way, as my father said, it would form an anthology on television in India in the 21st century. My father is right, of course. 

How difficult was it to put it together?
The subject itself was not difficult at all because I truly enjoy researching and writing about the Indian media. Also my father went through the first draft, made many invaluable suggestions, and kept an eagle eye to see that my writing remained free of academic jargon to fit Penguin’s brief. But given that this is television we are talking about, and it’s so fast moving, I updated the book thrice. As I laughingly tell my editor at Penguin, I have done not one, but three, books for them!

You talk about how every day events influence television programming (content generation) and vice versa. Is Indian television not evolving progressively, or is it that it is evolving the wrong way? What’s the case in general?

Every day events influence TV programming, especially the genres of 24x7 news and soap operas. If they didn’t, the TV programmes wouldn’t make sense otherwise. Nothing exists in a vacuum. News is about rounding up the events of the day, right? With a focus on national news, a bit of sports, weather, entertainment, etc., towards the end. Similarly, most soap operas have a basis in reality, Why people start calling them ‘regressive’ is because many times, soap opera stars are dressed lavishly, the sets are expensive, etc. So people mistake form for content. Why? At the end of the day, soaps are stories, and stories are generally embellished in their telling. In fact, it’s this ‘tragic structure of feeling’ to quote media theorist Ien Ang, which makes soaps so popular, that is, that the rich and powerful suffer and must face the same problems such as fall from grace and riches, jealousy, infidelity … that even so-called ordinary people face.

To my mind, Indian television is not evolving the wrong way, Sure, there are hiccups. News channels were criticised for only seeking the rich and famous during the 26/11 attacks, but they took note of that criticism. And the focus was on the aam aadmi after the horrific gang rape incident of December 2012, not politically powerful or celebrity sound bytes. That the identity of Nirbhaya and her family still remains a closely guarded secret is a compliment to the 24x7 news channels who can be relentless in their coverage.

Can you give us a few striking features of the change that Indian television programming gone through in the recent years?
From a mere two channels owned by Doordarshan prior to 1991, just 20 years later, in 2011, India had 647 television channels... and counting. Cable and satellite homes have grown from 1.2 million in 1992 to 108 million by 2011. It is also important to recognise the speed with which this took place. Growth rates in rural areas far outstrip urban areas. The growth in TV channels is mainly in the news and entertainment genres. Regional channels are gaining prominence, though the Hindi GEC market has the largest audience among all television viewing. Along with a hunger for content on the part of the public, the price of getting content in India is also negligible compared to Western countries. A direct fallout of cheaply available content is intense competition among content providers, and consequently, the quality of content has become better over time.

Remote Control: Indian Television in the New Millennium
Shoma Munshi
Penguin India
Pages: 376
Price: Rs 499
The social changes taking place in the tier 2 and tier 3 towns are staggering, and earlier while this consumer market in India came top down, now it functions in a much more bottom-up fashion. With so much varied content, there is no uniformity in consumer tastes any more either. People are interested in checking out differences, they want to see different things.

Such is the charisma of the small screen that top Bollywood stars pervade the medium – whether as anchors, judges, or celebrity participants. Gone are the days when television was looked down upon as the poor cousin. Soap stars, too, are now as much household names in India as their Bollywood counterparts -– think of Sakshi Tanwar, Ram Kapoor, Smiriti Irani. In a noteworthy departure from Bollywood, successful women on television, whether soap actresses or anchors, are paid as much as their male counterparts (long live woman power)!

It is a mix of celebrity and the aam aadmi that is so compelling about watching Indian television nowadays. And finally, television is the cheapest and best-value entertainment on offer, what is colloquially referred to in Hindi as ‘paisa vasool’. As Jaideep Sahni told me ‘Television is now catering to what Bollywood earlier used to cater to; and Bollywood is catering to urban audiences, multiplexes, NRIs. Think of TV soaps now as a series of Bollywood films.’ The story of Indian television has only just begun to be told. But it is central to telling the story of modern India.

Do you think soaps have lost their market now? Or are they reinventing themselves?
Soaps will never lose their market, at least in India. Here, they are the top TRP getters, and so remain the lifeblood of the GEC (general entertainment channel) scheduling. Soaps are stories, and India has a long and rich story telling tradition.

Globally, there is criticism that reality television is far removed from the reality. In India, what’s the scene like? How hyper have they gone? And how this is going to affect the way we live, shop, communicate and comprehend things?
Admittedly, there is little that is ‘really real’ in the various swayamvars (though last seen in the ongoing XXNach Baliye, Rahul Mahajan was still married to Dimpy Ganguly!) There is also an element of voyeurism in reality shows …. witness Bigg Boss. But audiences also know that they are mainly for entertainment and that participants on such shows are ‘performing reality.’ Still, as I said in my book, love it or hate it, you can’t ignore it. Reality TV is far from being the comfort TV of watching one’s favourite soap operas on weekdays. Reality TV can be uncomfortable and can rattle people’s cages (especially those of the moral police). But reality TV is never boring. After all, when was the last time that yelling at the TV was such fun?’ And on a ratings level, reality shows work magic for channels, especially in their weekend slots. The chief objection against reality TV is morality and propriety. Again, as I cited in my book, what James Poniewozik noted for the US holds true for India as well: ‘A great reality-TV concept takes some commonplace piety of polite society and gives it a wedgie . . . Romance and feminism say a man’s money shouldn’t matter; Joe Millionaire [and our swayamvars] wagers $50 million that they’re wrong.’

I remember reading Four Arguments For The Elimination Of Television by Jerry Mander years ago and even thought it was high time one wrote something similar about India’s television. Taking a cue from the book, if one cynic says, India’s TV has gone well past reforms and can’t be cured, how do you respond? Is there hope?
See, I don’t agree with the basic premise of Jerry Mander’s 1978 book, mainly because it reduces consumers (audiences/viewers) to the hypodermic needle theory, in that audiences are not intelligent enough/will not be able to/engage enough to make their own judgements. Why this bias against the ‘active’ consumer who exercises ‘agency’? One of Mander’s basic points is that in television, the receiver (viewer) has no control over the messages, so even if s/he switches channels, the sender (producer) controls what the consumer watches. There is also the option of not watching television of course!

On another note, why does India’s TV need ‘curing’? Is it ill? While Doordarshan with its B&W Chitrahaar and Sunday movies had its own charm, I doubt anyone in India who actually watches TV wants to return to those times when Krishi Darshan put people into a stupor and all news was government propaganda. I think that those who make the argument for TV needing curing need to get off their elitist high horses and examine the power of pleasure that Indian television today affords to so many and for so little! To use Churchill’s phrase in a lighter vein, but equally accurately: ‘Never have so many owed so much to so few …’ – ask those whose only relief from daily tedium is a couple of hours of good old fashioned TV viewing with Anandi’s travails, Akshara and Naitik’s joint families, Priya and Ram Kapoor’s dilemmas, Sallu bhai’s Bigg Boss and Big B’s avuncular warmth on KBC – what’s not to like?! Ain’t nothing to cure in this!

Can we compare Indian television with any other markets abroad? Are there any parallels? If there are, can you kindly elaborate?

To the best of my knowledge, the Indian television market is a stand alone one. India is one of the largest and most complex television markets in the world. Did you know that we have the largest number of news channels in the world... and increasing? Part of this has to do with our oral history tradition and Amartya Sen’s argument of our ‘argumentative’ culture. And no matter that they break the news every five seconds, let us not forget their role in holding many corrupt and hitherto untouched people responsible and accountable. Our soap operas (with one exception so far) don’t have seasons; they are with us 5, sometimes 6 days in a week with a maha episode thrown in for good measure; they are our dal-chawal. Soap characters become family members. Our reality shows which are franchised from overseas barely retain the original format. They are indigenized and Indianized, which is why they’re so successful in striking a chord with the Indian psyche. Which country in the world can boast of superstars like Amitabh Bachchan hosting Who Wants to be A Millionaire, or a Salman Khan hosting Big Brother? To the star power, add the aam aadmi and his stories – you’ve got a winner!

The Indian television market is definitely a sustainable model. It is in fact the one where there are profits to be made as compared to only a few films that make equivalent profits for the amount invested in Bollywood. The very fact that Amitabh Bachchan, if media reports are to be believed is planning to act in a daily soap, should tell you something about the profitability and sustainability of TV.

Since Through The Magic Window by Sevanti Ninan, there have not been too many books that looked at the history and growth of Indian television. Your book is a good addition to that. But one gets a feeling that you did not talk enough about the way market intervenes in forming new tastes for new forms of content for Indian television. Do you think Indian television content is more in tune with the realities of the bazaar today? Are we creating content that can help create new potential consumers?

Sevanti Ninan’s book dealt with the 1990s. My book is not an addition – it is the first, and so far only, book that deals with the three most popular genres of television programming – 24x7 news, reality shows, and soap operas - in the new millennium.

To address the second part of your question: my book starts with the sub-title ‘United by Television as Consumers.’ I expand in the very beginning of the book, and also throughout the book – as to how, when the three Ms – media, market and the manner in which we run our democracy – interact, it creates new tensions and dynamics; and when married with the market, it legitimizes desire. Sure, other media technologies also help in making the public as consumers, but none more so than television with its enormous reach and potential. This is also the only media platform which does not require literacy in creating not just real and potential consumers, but also citizens.

Video killed the Radio star, what do you think can kill the video star, or at least the TV star?

Nothing will kill the TV star in India – not as long as it remains the most affordable form of entertainment for the vast majority of people - who cannot afford the killing price of movie tickets, especially in multiplexes. And why not? Even new films are shown on TV within a couple of months of their release. An entire family can watch those new films, plus much other varied programming for a couple of hundred bucks a month. Can you beat that?

What are you reading now?

As an academic, books are my world, whether for teaching or in my own work. Apart from that, in recent times, I have been impressed by Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers that is almost perfectly told, minus drama and romance, about life in the Annawadi slums. Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken is the latest in his series of an unerring eye on the hustle and bustle of colourful Delhi. Both books also underline India’s contemporary social transformations in a globalizing world and are recounted brilliantly, though thankfully minus the rose-tinted glasses about ‘India Rising and Shining.’

I am a fan of Santosh Desai and Rama Biajpurkar’s writings. Reading their work, one is always left with the feeling that they articulate exactly what we’ve been thinking all along. I also enjoy Chetan Bhagat’s books; they make for easy reading on flights and I’m all for that! And here’s an admission: I picked up the (in)famous Fifty Shades of Grey (yes, I’m curious!) and after 50 pages, realized that it’s a more exciting form of all the Mills and Boons we read as teenagers (do teenagers nowadays read Mills and Boons, or am I hopelessly out of date?! And OMG, will I now be called a ‘Mommy Porn’ reader?! – alas!)

When and where do you write?
I’m a morning person, so I must start writing first thing in the morning with a cup of coffee by my side. I write at my desk and I’m lucky in that my entire apartment has a great view overlooking the vast expanse of the Arabian Gulf so I can stare out to sea. I also sit out on the balcony to read and make notes while formulating my thoughts before putting finger to keyboard.

What is your energy drink?
Aqua pura as my Dad says. I drink a lot of water, around 4 litres every day. And two cups of freshly brewed coffee are a must every morning to start my brain cells ticking.

What’s next?
I am currently working on finishing up papers that I have been invited to contribute to edited volumes. I also do a lot of peer reviewing for research foundations, journals and book publishers. I definitely want to write another book, and it will be on the vibrant Indian media scene. I just have to think through what aspect – television, Bollywood maybe …. But as always, I want it to be the first, not yet another book on the same topic. So yes, something new.
Read: NDTV Group's KVL Narayan Rao reviews Remote Control

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