What started with music has now ended up in court.
Broadcast companies in search of the next big thing in genres have moved from music countdowns to melodramatic soap operas, to talent hunts and reality shows. Now, one broadcast firm is betting that a life-like show that revolves around a group of lawyers and their work can score high on television ratings. And so, NDTV Ltd will launch Bombay Lawyers, a 13-part series, on Saturday on NDTV India, its Hindi news channel.
“In India, you don’t usually see fictional shows on news channels, but the serial depicts issues that we discuss in our regular shows,” says Dibang, the managing editor of NDTV India. Even NDTV debated whether the show would work for it before deciding to air it, adds Dibang, who uses only one name.
Satyajit Bhatkal, a lawyer who worked for LC Associates and “did all sorts of work— matrimonial, labour, criminal”— says NDTV India was the first channel he approached with his script. “I went to them with the line that this serial attempts to do in fiction what you are already doing in non-fiction,” he adds.
Bhatkal, who is directing the series, is best known for his association with Lagaan, a Bollywood blockbuster starring his friend Aamir Khan, and a book he wrote, and a documentary he authored, about the making of the movie.
The concept of work-related shows or series that deal with people who work together in a certain profession hasn’t been explored, says Bhatkal.
“I feel that this genre of programming, if it is done entertainingly, should get high TRPs (television rating points). It’s just that they have to be done with a lot of conviction,” he adds.
Bhatkal speaks of the “fabulous” series that television channels in the US have carried on doctors, policemen, and psychiatrists. Internationally, the work-inspired genre of television series has created modern-day mini-classics such as ER (written by Michael Crichton), LA Law, The Practice, CSI, and The Office (the last series first appeared in the UK although there is now a US version with new actors).
“I think they’re just crying out to be made (in India),” says Bhatkal, who adds that his show on lawyers was not inspired by, or modelled on, The Practice. That American series, he says, “is one of the finest pieces of television ever made, but it is so much more gritty than Bombay Lawyers.”
If Bhatkal is right, he may have just identified the next big thing in the broadcast business. Viewers, broadcast firms have discovered, tire of genres as rapidly as they adopt them. But not everyone thinks the work-inspired genre will automatically work. Kamlesh Pandey, the writer of Rang De Basanti (another Bollywood blockbuster starring Aamir Khan) and the creative head of Zee TV in the early 1990s, says the success of shows based on work depends on how they are produced.
Pandey adds that audiences aren’t interested in hospitals and courtrooms as much as they are in the lives of a show’s protagonists. “All of us feed on gossip. Other people’s personal lives keep us going.”
Sandeep Sikand, until last week the creative head of Sony Entertainment Television, says that “family sagas really” work, but that producers should not use that as an excuse to stop creating “new kinds of programming”. Sikand describes the debut of Bombay Lawyers as “a welcome thing”.
Advertisers, too, welcome something that stands out from the clutter of soaps and talent hunts. “It depends on the kind of plan you have. If you want a mass market for your product, then you’ll go for the more established programmes. But if you want to target a smaller group of people, you would look for appropriate programming,” says Santosh Desai, MD and CEO of Future Brands, the branding and marketing arm of the Future Group. “Shows with professionals in them can be used if you are targeting professionals.”
It is likely that work-based series break even a lot faster. A series about lawyers with a skeletal cast could cost much less than mainstream soaps. Top soaps cost around Rs10 lakh an episode to produce and some reality shows cost 10 times that, per episode. Dibang and Bhatkal did not disclose the cost of producing Bombay Lawyers.
Dibang says NDTV India is not driven by the same considerations as other channels. “We’re not a TRP-conscious channel,” he adds.