On the sets of the sprawling 14,500 sq. ft Bigg Boss 6 in Lonavala, Maharashtra, a 300-member crew works in 12-hour shifts to monitor 70 mounted and six manual cameras. Television ratings (TVRs) which were 2.3 with Bigg Boss season 2, when Endemol India acquired the show, and peaked at 3.4 in Bigg Boss season 4, dropped to 2.5 last season. Deepak Dhar, managing director and CEO of Endemol India, explains what it takes to get the reality show off the ground each season. Edited excerpts:
The channel this year has picked a new format—trying to turn ‘Bigg Boss 6’ into a ‘family’ show. What’s the reason?
Well, what prompted that was largely two things: You don’t want to do the same kind of stuff again and again. And every season, we try to give it a different skin. This season, we wanted to make it more fun. Keep it in that grain.
Was it because of negative feedback after the Dolly Bindra episodes? Did the ‘loud’ factor get too high for TRPs (television rating points)?
Not really, in fact, it’s such a show that there are some who love it and some who hate it, and those who hate it too love to hate it. It’s not like there was too much of anything but we also felt that if used time and again there will be some kind of fatigue in trying to push the same elements.
Demographically, how have the target audiences changed over the past five seasons?
Well, clearly, a lot of youth sample the show from what we understand. But we are constantly trying to steer Bigg Boss into the family-viewing territory. But because of the voyeuristic element of the show, there are times when you have to tow a very thin line, and there are times when you can shift one way or the other, but as producers, we are very diligent about it. We don’t want too much of the same happening.
Culturally, is the Indian format considerably subdued compared with its international counterparts?
Yes, it is. Some markets really push the envelope, but in India and some of the other markets, Indonesia, Spain, other parts of Asia, Middle East (West Asia)—these markets are very culturally relevant; as a result, we don’t show explicit content.
Has the channel ever had to intervene during a show to avoid such content?
Yes. We don’t ask contestants to tone it down. At the end of the day, it goes through a process of SNP (a post-production process), certain guidelines; most importantly, at a post-production level if you feel there are certain things that cannot be sampled on prime time, then that will be knocked off.
So you do have some sort of internal censorship?
Yes, of course. Inside the house, we don’t control it but whatever little we do control is with checks and balances in post-production for what is on the air. Once people go in the house, there is zero control. Of course, we have the big brother voice that acts as mediator.
In the context of today’s debates on censorship, do you consider what sort of a statement the show is making?
As a producer, I am all for internal guidelines and censorship, be it social media or be it television. We love to play with the guidelines because it’s a format which is very voyeuristic. Voyeurism is just one element of the format, but people tend to pick up just that part of it. There are some engaging characters, there are some inspiring people who want to come back into the limelight. We cannot control a person and dictate; when there is no interference from our side, it can go one way or the other.
How does the casting work? Do you scan the news for people who are current and controversial, seeking a bit of the freakish?
We don’t intend ever to make a freak show. Freaks do get highlighted or come under the scanner, but we have a Juhi Parmar, a Shweta Tiwari; the first-cut brief is, let’s cast a spectrum of characters. It takes all sorts to make a great, entertaining show. There are those who also come under the spotlight more than we expect, but we want to cast colourful, engaging people. We’re not only looking for a freak, but if we happen to chance upon somebody who is a bit freakish, then fine. We look for people who could last out a mental aim for 100 days.
Why Salman Khan as host, and how has that translated for you in terms of the show?
Well, biggest superstar, to put it simply. But, again, I think his unpredictable personality and his really very engaging personality really suits the show. With him also, we don’t try and script it too much, we try and operate in the comfort zone he likes to operate in. Scripting it too much would be against the grain of the show and he also doesn’t like it.
There has been criticism right from season 1 about the ethical aspects of putting people in a pressure-cooker situation and whether the channel is at all concerned about the psychological condition of the participants.
There is a bible we follow at the back end: be it doctors, psychologists, a panel of people that’s constantly screening the show. It’s not just a television show, it’s a way of life for us. While it’s, of course, about putting out an engaging episode, that’s not the only leg. The back end is very important to us. We’ve got doctors, ambulances, psychologists, all sorts of teams, on standby to ensure that the right amount of due diligence is in place because a show of this nature is very unpredictable. You need to be 24x7 ready. When we had KRK (Kamaal Rashid Khan) in the house, we had to let him go. When we had Samir Soni in the house, we had to send in counselling. When we had Shweta Tiwari in the house who broke down, we intervened. We are constantly counselling and there are times when we are clear we will not show those sessions on air because it’s private, confidential stuff. There’s a lot that happens. For them, it’s not a television show—they are coming to live in a house, so all sorts of background peripheral stuff has to be in place.