New Delhi: Indian television networks hosting reality shows are finding themselves in the hot seat with allegations from contestants, viewers and even judges about manipulated staging, voting, selection and elimination processes flying thick and fast.
No kidding: The prize money for Star Plus’ Kya Aap Paanchvi Pass Se Tez Hain?, hosted by Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, is Rs5 crore.
In the past one year, many contestants and judges, including Bollywood bit-player Rakhi Sawant, who participated in the dance show Nach Baliye-3 hosted by Star India Pvt. Ltd’s flagship channel Star Plus, and music composer Ismail Durbar, who was a judge on a singing talent show on Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd’s Zee TV, have alleged publicly that all was not fair with such shows.
To avoid such problems and bring in an element of transparency and accountability, Indian television networks are increasingly engaging independent audit agencies, who vet every aspect of the show, beginning from the selection process to voting, elimination of candidates and even judges’ attitude towards contestants.
“Besides allegations, it’s the sheer increase in the number of talent shows and the change in their profile that has put focus on ensuring credibility and transparency,” says Indrani Mukerjea, chairperson, INX Media Pvt. Ltd.
According to MindShare Insights, the research arm of media buying agency MindShare, the number of reality shows across TV channels in India went up from 142 in 2006 to 802 in 2007. This includes channels across the market, regional as well as Hindi and English. Audit agencies, however, are being engaged mostly by general entertainment channels (GEC) because the genre attracts maximum viewership and viewer participation.
“Also, the prize money for most shows has shot through the roof,” notes Mukerjea, alluding to the heightened stakes for participants, judges and networks.
The prize money for the most hyped reality game show on Indian television, Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC), launched by Star Plus in 2000 and based on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, was Rs1 crore. The channel doubled the money when it relaunched the show in 2005. And, recently, when it launched yet another high profile show, hosted by Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan, it increased the attraction for viewers by 150% to Rs5 crore. Rival Multi Screen Media Pvt. Ltd’s SET Max channel launched 10 Ka Dum, a game show with Rs10 crore as the prize money.
“Reality shows are important to general entertainment channels because they get immediate viewership,” says Tarun Mehra, business head of Zee TV.
Little wonder then, that most new channels launched in GEC are marketing themselves through some reality show or the other. Colors, the GEC launched this week by Viacom 18, is aggressively promoting its reality show Khatron Ke Khiladi with a prize of Rs50 lakh. Others are wooing viewers with promises of film or singing contracts.
The popularity of these shows has also generated a lot interest from advertisers. According to MindShare Insights, reality shows generated Rs225 crore in advertising in 2007, which was 168% more than the previous year.
This popularity has come with its own set of challenges. In 2006, a viewer pointed out that employees of state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd, the telecom partners for KBC-2, were regular contestants on the show and they could be rigging the participation process.
“Thankfully, we had KPMG auditing the show and they came up with relevant facts and figures to placate the viewer in question. And that saved us unnecessary legal hassle,” recalls Viren Popli, senior vice-president and head of mobile entertainment at Star TV.
Experts point out that legal problems is a big factor that has made vetting of the entire process of hosting and managing such shows a must in the Western markets.
“Legal costs are very high in the West. If a third person finds a flaw in a show and takes the organizers to the courts, it could be extremely damaging for them. Besides denting their public image, it could also set them back by a few million dollars,” says N. Bhaskar Rao, chairman, Centre for Media Studies, an independent not-for-profit research group.
Taking a cue from their global counterparts, Indian networks are also investing in shielding themselves from such probable damages. According to various executives in leading TV companies, audit agencies are paid anywhere between Rs20 lakh and Rs2 crore to vet programming, selection and judging processes and ensure complete transparency.
Audit companies typically designate 7-10 people to work on a particular show. “The team reviews the entire selection, elimination and voting process by installing software at every viewer touchpoint, including phone calls, mobile text messages and Internet registrations, says Shashank Karnad, director (forensic) at audit and consulting firm KPMG.
Audit and consulting firm Ernst and Young (E&Y) says it has even been asked to ensure that when international shows are licensed by Indian broadcasters, there is no significant difference in their local adaptation. “We are involved in organizing the sets, selecting the background music as well as monitoring the attitude of hosts and the judges on the show. We even advise them on the humour and type of language they use,” says Ashish Pherwani, a senior manager at E&Y.
“Hiring audit companies means no fingers are pointed at us. By investing in auditing, we safeguard our credibility and peace of mind,” says Rohit Gupta, president (network sales) at Multi Screen Media.