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New Delhi: He served variously as the programming head, chief operating officer and chief executive at Star India during his 12 year stint with the broadcasting company and turned its fortunes around with the launch of Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) and soap operas produced by Balaji Telefilms Ltd. Later, he became CEO of NDTV Imagine Ltd that shut down when Turner International pulled the plug on the loss making channel. In the last three years, Sameer Nair has invested in a production house, a multi-channel online video company, an e-commerce firm and a restaurant. Last week, the broadcasting industry veteran was appointed group CEO of Balaji Telefilms, the television and film production company run by Ekta Kapoor.

In an interview, Nair spoke of changing audiences, emergence of niche entertainment and the lessons he learnt at Imagine. Edited excerpts:

You were responsible for the success of Star Plus with KBC and the K serials. Did you lose your magic touch at NDTV Imagine?

The audio-visual medium is a collaborative art form—it takes many moving parts to work in harmony to create excellence. In the case of Star Plus, it was Amitabh Bachchan, KBC, the Balaji serials and the Star team working on it that resulted in pure magic.

I have no magic touch or wand to lose. Let me use a sport metaphor here—form is temporary; class is permanent. I think, we as a team, despite our best efforts, were out of form at Imagine. I don’t think anyone didn’t try enough or work hard enough, but sometimes, you’re just not timing the ball right. C’est la vie. You live, you learn, you grow.

What does your role at Balaji entail?

My mandate as Group CEO is to grow the television business in both volume and value, organically and through collaborations. For instance, we already have a joint venture company called Bolt which makes programmes for channels such as Channel V. I have to scale the movie business, too, and move up from the 4-6 movies a year to 10-12 films. And then look at new business opportunities in media—online, talent, sport, distribution and direct to customer. Balaji is a content powerhouse and we seek to take our content creating abilities across genres, mediums and geographies. For instance, Balaji was big in the south in the 1990s. We hope to do that again.

After the success of its programmes on Star Plus, didn’t Balaji fail to adapt itself to the changing requirements of television industry?

As we speak, Balaji has 6 shows on air and more on the anvil. Of these, Jodha Akbar is a huge success, as are the others such as Ye Hai Mohabbatein, Bade Acche Lagte Hain and Kumkum Bhagya.

Everything is cyclical and I think Ekta Kapoor and Balaji have re-invented brilliantly after the dream run with Star.

How do production houses and channels get the pulse of the viewer? Is most programming based on gut feel?

Programming is based on understanding changing viewer behaviour, anticipating need, research to validate that understanding and need—and then creating an excellent product to fulfil that need. Gut feel is a loosely used term. Obviously instinct is at play, but this instinct comes from years of storytelling experience, of knowing that you need to tell new stories in new ways to changed audiences. It’s not as chancy as it seems.

So research has a role.

Research is important in as much as it could prevent you from making a spectacular error. But I don’t think research alone can ensure that you deliver a spectacular success. That requires lots of attention to detail, great storytelling and the X Factor.

Have the television audiences changed?

Audiences change in complexion every 4 years. A newer segment emerges from the past. While new audiences join in, those already in the viewership fold also change as they hit personal milestones such as landing a job, getting married and raising children, among others. Audience tastes evolve according to their lifecycle. So everything depends on how well the programmer recognizes these segments.

Your comments on trends in programming: is India ready for serials with shorter life spans and realistic portrayal of characters?

We’re getting there. Already there have been good attempts with 24 and Yudh (television fiction debut for Anil Kapoor and Amitabh Bachchan, respectively). More will happen. It is just a question of getting the economics right. High-concept fiction means exactly that—high concept. It doesn’t necessarily mean outrageous costs. On television, the show is always bigger than the stars in it, the story is bigger than the production design, the writing bigger than everything else. That is what makes US television so good.

What about our over-the-top serials?

There is space for everyone. As the audience base expands and as digitization grows, the singular mass has given way to some very significant niches. In my opinion, the GEC (General Entertainment Channel) is dead and has been replaced by some very big NECs (Niche Entertainment Channels). And this trend will only grow. So there will always be audience for soaps, and there will be audiences for realistic programming, urban tales, crime-only, romance and youth, action, frights and thrills, what have you. And digitization increasingly makes NECs a profitable opportunity.

Are reality shows losing their sheen?

I wouldn’t say they’re losing their sheen—but yes, they are fatiguing. The problem for unscripted television, especially that’s dependent on celebrities, is that it very quickly becomes prohibitively expensive. Couple that with diminishing returns because of sameness and audience fatigue...

Any lessons from your stint at Star and NDTV Imagine?

As I was saying, the audience base is increasingly segmenting from an amorphous mass to distinct yet large niches. The big learning for me, in hindsight, of course, is that the GEC is illusory and the reality is the NEC. A network and a platform can and should be everything for everyone but a channel has to be something for someone. The one size fits all GEC is myth and that is a difficult lesson I learnt. Funnily enough, that is exactly what we were doing at Star before but at Imagine we laboured under the burden of trying to be different instead of being better.

Will entertainment move to other screens in new media?

Multiple screen consumption is already happening. Now what we need is original content for new screens. Younger audiences will watch most of their favourite television on their computers, tablets or phones. It is inevitable. Even the recent IPL had Star actively promoting StarSports.com as a very real alternate viewing screen.

As broadband speeds improve and number of handheld screens grow—both happening very rapidly—content consumption will shift to multiple screens. But for now, it is the same content. The big future leap will be new content for new screens...but that is another story.

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