Mumbai: For 35 minutes on every Sunday morning, the entire nation came to a halt as families crowded around their television sets during the 18 months that film-maker Ramanand Sagar’s serialized version of the epic Ramayan aired on Doordarshan starting in January 1987. The state broadcaster strengthened its Sunday morning slot with the launch in October 1988 of the Mahabharat, another mythological serial, created by Bollywood producer-director B.R. Chopra.

Among other things, Doordarshan owed its success to the absolute monopoly it enjoyed at the time—television viewers in the late 1980s had no other channel to watch.

More than 20 years later, when Indian television viewers can choose between hundreds of channels across genres if they want to watch television at all, another film production house is trying to revive the Sunday morning slot on a private broadcasting network with a show that’s based not in myth and religion but contemporary India.

Aamir Khan at the promotion of ’Satyamev Jayate’ in Kochi. PTI

Among thousands of tweets on the microblogging site Twitter, one read, “I will say that Dil pe bahut lagi, Lekin baat banegi kya? (It touched the heart, but will it resonate?) And I am not talking about TRPs. It goes much beyond that."

The tweet was by Sneha Rajani, executive vice-president and business head at Star’s rival Sony Entertainment Television. While Rajani may be referring to the eventual impact of the show as an agent of real change, others in the media business are wondering if an expensive show devoted to serious social issues could actually revive Sunday morning television viewing—a phenomenon that disappeared with the Mahabharat in 1990.

According to Star India’s chief executive officer Uday Shankar, the broadcaster wanted to air the show at a time and on a day when the audience would have the attention span to view stories that must be told.

“Sunday morning historically has been a time when the family came together to watch iconic shows like Ramayan and Mahabharat," Shankar said. “It is a time when the family can sit together and view content without distraction. The slot has been designed around the fact that this is one TV event that will compel the family to switch on their TV sets on a Sunday morning. Also, viewers for long have sought more diversity in content on weekends."

Shankar, however, did not divulge the future programming strategy— whether or not Star will introduce fresh shows around the 13 episodes of Satyamev Jayate, the way it successfully built the “K" serial soap operas around Kaun Banega Crorepati back in 2000.

“The programming strategy at Star has always been reflective of changing tastes of our viewers and of the changing times. Consequently, we will review our slot strategy accordingly," Shankar said.

Critics argue that the Sunday morning slot for television viewers may not be easy to recreate given the lifestyle changes in post-liberalization India, marked by an enormous increase in entertainment options, whether eating out, shopping at malls or going to to the multiplex to catch the latest movie. That’s not all. The television audience has become hugely fragmented, with over 800 television channels beaming into family drawing rooms.

According to a former television executive who did not want to be named, typically TV shows that use film stars are meant for all audiences above the age of four.

“Although Satyamev Jayate is a wonderful show, viewers in the 25-plus age group are likely to watch it. You can rule out the four-plus and 14-plus," this person said.

Habeeb Nizamudin, who has the title of chief growth officer, India, at (media buying and planning agency) Lodestar Universal, agreed that Satyamev Jayate has made a powerful beginning.

“It could lead to the resurgence of the Sunday morning time slot if it sustains itself in the same manner," Nizamudin said. “Whether it will be on the same level (in viewership) as Mahabharat or Ramayan remains to be seen, although the social buzz and the reaction of viewers has been simply astounding.".

Several people closely involved with television content said it is the programming that defines the slot. “That is what appointment viewing is all about," said Sameer Nair, former chief executive of Star as well as Imagine TV.

He dismissed the changing lifestyle argument. “By that account, evening prime time should be more vulnerable as people have far more to do in the evenings," he said.

Agreed Ashvini Yardi, former programming head at Colors: “When I started out, the prime time at Zee TV was between 8pm and 10 pm only. However, today a serial at 7pm is the best-rated serial on a channel and prime time has extended to 11.30pm. You create a new time and people will come. It depends on the programming appeal." Yardi now runs a film production company.

Most Hindi entertainment channels have shied away from launching high-profile shows in the Sunday morning slot.

For starters, it is not easy to create a show for the entire family. Secondly, channels work with pre-determined programming budgets and they prefer to invest in shows where they can maximize return on investment.

“Lastly, most channels opted for repeats of their prime time shows in the mornings to tap new audience who may be watching another channel during prime time and attempt to convert him/her," said Shailaja Kejriwal, former content head at Star India as well as Imagine.

Even before Star launched Satyamev Jayate, Colors on 29 April launched a health and wellness show All is Well with Dr. Ahluwalia to be aired every Sunday at noon.

“All is well, takes a Sunday noon slot, a time when the entire family gets together, thereby building our weekend viewing," said Raj Nayak, chief executive officer of Colors. “The show is also in line with the Colors philosophy of providing the viewers with (a) variety of programming. With All is well, we hope to bring in more awareness on health issues and take up the cause of reaching the message to a large audience."

Several media executives say that given the herd mentality of the television industry, they expect competing channels in the Hindi general entertainment genre to attempt churning out high-decibel content for Sunday mornings.

“The Sunday morning slot on Hindi general entertainment channels was almost dead with the focus being shifted to daily soaps on weekdays and movies/reality shows on weekends," said Jehil Thakkar, partner overseeing the media and entertainment practice at KPMG.

“But there is a gap which channels will now look at filling. In an attempt to capture the same audience, channels will build programming before and after the 11am to 12.30pm slot when Satyamev Jayate is aired,"

However, it will take at least four-to-six weeks to be able to establish if the show has indeed been successful in reviving television viewing during a time slot that was lost for two decades.

Kejriwal said Star did a smart thing by putting its pathbreaking show outside the evening prime time so that it did not clash with its hardcore entertainment and revenue generating programmes.

“This is more like Star and Aamir Khan’s corporate social responsibility endeavour. The image rub-off for Star India will be positive," she said.

Close