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Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

The TV content conundrum

The strategies of broadcasters, producers and advertisers are based on the week-to-week world of viewership ratings. Nobody wants to upset that

At a recent digital media conference in Mumbai, Abhimanyu Singh, chief executive of television production house Contiloe Pictures, played whistle-blower on the TV content industry when he said: “Discerning audience is disengaged…content industry needs to reinvent itself."

To be sure, Singh is an industry insider whose production company currently produces soaps including Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat for Colors and Sankat Mochan Mahabali Hanumaan for Sony.

Singh later said that certain audiences do not agree with the content that’s currently on air across channels. So, they are not watching television at all. What is being served neither captures nor engages them. Singh, of course, added that he was referring to the audiences that he meets.

This is precisely what television critics have been raging about in their columns for years now—the poor quality of content on Hindi general entertainment channels (GECs). But it’s not fair to isolate Hindi GECs, as content that serves the lowest common denominator is mindless, vicarious or regressive, and can be seen across TV genres and languages.

Interestingly, broadcasters and TV content producers agreed with Singh’s remark and admitted to the problem of quality. Some spoke off the record, others were more candid.

TV content producer Ashvini Yardi said that quality of content on Hindi GECs had deteriorated in the past 8-10 years. In the 1990s, there was content for different age groups. Ever since the 2000s, the channels have mostly targeted the housewife during the week. “But we haven’t given the housewife much choice either," she said.

Yardi, who has worked with Zee and Colors in the past, now runs Vini Yard Films, which has two shows on air. She also makes films in collaboration with actor Akshay Kumar under the banner of Grazing Goats Pictures.

However, this housewife that Yardi refers to is a sticky audience that returns to TV every day for its daily dose of soaps. To cater to this audience, broadcasters have ignored the youth and the discerning viewers at the top of the pyramid, feels Sunjoy Waddhwa, chairman and managing director at TV production firm Sphere Origins.

Although some content producers feel that the youth is moving away from TV and settling down elsewhere, there’s an increase in the total television viewers as well as time spent on TV. In his article in Mint on why television matters, BARC India chief executive Partho Dasgupta wrote that currently out of the 275 million households in India, only 153 million homes own a TV (that is, just 54% of the population). Urban penetration (of TV homes) stands at 83%, while rural is as low as 40%. So there’s definite headroom for growth. BARC or Broadcast Audience Research Council India is the country’s premier TV viewership monitoring agency.

However, Waddhwa believes—though he has no data to back his argument—that the maximum addition in viewership is happening at the bottom of the pyramid, which also defines the kind of content that channels and content producers make.

In fact, in the new viewership dispensation under BARC India, smaller towns and villages are being added and given more weightage in sampling. That too has a bearing on the kind of content being produced. And while India’s interiors are changing in terms of consumption habits, culturally they’re still steeped in tradition, which may be impacting programming as well, said Waddhwa.

Broadcasters and content producers offer other reasons for feeble programming. The competition among channels is fierce and there is definite audience fragmentation. Carriage fees may have declined but not disappeared. Besides, broadcasters’ subscription revenues haven’t improved as much as expected. For programming to get better, a viewer has to pay for content. “We are still an advertiser-driven market. It is a fault line that needs to be corrected," said Singh of Contiloe Pictures.

That is not all. Increased competition has ensured that the advertising yield doesn’t go up. Their ad rates, broadcasters claim, are among the cheapest in the world.

As a consequence, there is poor investment in programming compared to global standards. Hindi channels spend barely Rs8-10 lakh an episode for fiction, while the cost in regional languages could be as low as Rs2.5 lakh. There is a paucity of good writers, too. The successful writers want to turn producers because there is money to be made there.

Above all, channels’ core audiences are still lapping up what they are being served. So there is business to be done. The strategies of broadcasters, producers and advertisers are based on the week-to-week world of viewership ratings. Nobody wants to upset that. “It’s a tricky market," said Waddhwa. “Existing soaps are a staple diet. Switching palate is not easy. But we are at the threshold where change has to happen. It is needed." Agreed a broadcast executive: “There is downtrading of content. Someone needs to arrest it."

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

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