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Love it or hate it, one cannot ignore the entertainment on Indian television. After all, more than 90% of the television viewing audiences watch non-news channels, or various genres of entertainment.

The genre has been dominated by the loud, dramatic—and apparently addictive—saas bahu soaps, which have the highest viewership ratings across languages and regions in the country. Even as the number of channels has gone up (415 non-news channels and 402 news channels had received government approval as of December 2011) and despite the availability of a multitude of entertainment genres, these soaps dominate the popularity charts.

One interesting trend has been the rise of a non-fiction genre consisting of reality shows and factual entertainment-based programmes in the list of the best-rated television shows. An analysis by CMS Media Lab of prime-time programmes on the top six general entertainment channels (GECs) shows more than 20% of the shows fall under the non-fiction genre. This is in spite of such programmes being aired mainly on the weekends while the soaps are on throughout the week.

Experimentation has been the hallmark of non-fiction programming. Photo: Bloomberg

What is interesting to note is that while most soaps have revolved around human relationships, there has been little innovation in depicting them in the last two decades. There was an attempt to anchor some soaps around social issues and a few tried out different socio-cultural settings to stand apart from the rest of the pack.

In contrast, experimentation has been the hallmark of non-fiction programming. This genre has been dominated by reality shows based mostly on foreign formats. Talent shows such as Indian Idol on Sony, Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa on Colors, Dance India Dance Little Masters on Zee and Jo Jeeta Wohi SuperStar on Star have stood out.

The other kind of non-fiction programming now visible is popularly known as factual entertainment in Europe. This implies taking a set of facts and creating entertainment formats based on them. The genre is distinct in its use of traditional journalistic values in the popular (read commercial) interest. This is the space in which familiar genres like news and documentaries take on properties common to other kinds of programming.

Crime shows such as CID,FIR, Savdhan India and Gumrah fall into this category. Other current programmes such as All is Well with Dr. Ahluwalia, Aamne Samne, and even Hindi movie star Amir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate can be categorized as factual entertainment-based shows. Popular shows such as Kaun Banega Crorepati, Bigg Boss and Khatron Ke Khiladi are also part of this kind of programming. In this genre, the boundaries of fact and fiction are pushed to the limit and the audience constantly asks: “Is this for real?"

What is even more interesting is that this genre of factual entertainment is a growing trend on not just the GECs but across channels and also as a broadcasting niche. Cookery shows including MasterChef Australia on Star World and makeover shows like Band Baajaa Bride on NDTV Good Times are some other examples of this genre. Niche channels such as TLC, Discovery Turbo, National Geographic and the latest, History TV 18, beam what is considered factual entertainment.

Industry estimates show that the factual entertainment genre in India is around 1.5% of the overall television industry. The size of the business is estimated at around 200-250 crore. Even for advertisers, this genre of programming provides a differentiator and an opportunity to address niche audiences.

On GECs, these programmes are being used as hooks to generate attention as these have a shorter life span than soaps. Even though these kind of shows are more expensive to produce (especially when they involve celebrities), the hype and controversy that usually surrounds such programming gets enough attention for the channel to sustain interest in the genre.

Factual entertainment has opened up opportunities for more diverse and innovative programming in Indian television. Bringing elements of journalism and reality into popular entertainment certainly improves the relevance and efficacy of these shows. The amalgamation of different genres and the steady progress of factual entertainment is an important sign of changing audience interests and signals a new era for Indian television entertainment.

P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies (CMS). She studies and advises on policy issues in media and communication sector.

Also Read |P.N. Vasanti’s earlier columns

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