A still from Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai.
A still from Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai.

The trials and tribulations of making Indian TV

Indian television is bigger than Indian cinema and growing at breakneck speed. But behind the facade is an industry in the throes of change.

It is a Sunday morning in October, but there is no sign of weekend relaxation in the corridors and bylanes of Mumbai’s Hansraj Morarji Public School this October morning.

Things are busy indeed and it’s business as usual for the 150-member unit of Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai, a newly-launched drama series on Sony Entertainment Television, the flagship Hindi channel of the Sony Pictures Networks.

Neither the scorching Sun nor the fact that the rest of the city is revelling in the joy of a weekend morning has put the team off. The 12-hour schedule has begun—on the dot, at 7am—and there is not a hint of weekend lethargy.

The set for the shooting for an episode of Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai.
The set for the shooting for an episode of Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai.

Set in the 1990s, the show created by Shashi Sumeet Productions follows the teenage love story of two schoolchildren. Hansraj Morarji in Andheri was chosen to bring authenticity to the show.

This also means that apart from the lead pair and two adult actors (who are all called out only by their screen names on set), you see about two dozen adult actors and junior artistes walk around in school uniforms, their costumes for the day.

The sequence I witness being shot that morning seems simple enough: lead actor Randeep Rai and some of his friends are cycling to school when they chance upon female lead Ashi Singh and her classmates. Glances are exchanged before the girls walk away shyly and the boys get back to bantering.

Yet, director Jay Sengh isn’t happy with what he’s getting—the actors have cycled towards and away from the camera at least half a dozen times while Sengh watches the monitor with his team, all covering their heads with a black cloth, mouthing instructions into a microphone. There are too many junior actors milling around—those not required for the shot are politely told, “Agle shot mein aaoge, abhi baith jao."(You will be in the next shot, go sit for now.)

Launched in 2009, Shashi Sumeet has backed successful soap operas like Diya Aur Baati Hum, Tu Mera Hero and Punar Vivah in the past. And the company is spending anywhere between Rs8-10 lakh per episode on Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai. The facilities on set include plush vanity vans for the lead actors that cost about Rs5,000-6,000 per day, plus, of course, food, electricity and medical amenities.

Industry experts suggest that these numbers aren’t unusual for Indian television. Depending on the scale, it’s quite common to have 75 to 125 people on the set of a regular fiction show—a historical or mythological show may have up to 160.

Daily costs on set can inch towards Rs6-6.5 lakh, including equipment, set design, facilities and actor fees. For the average soap that airs five days a week, you have to shoot 12 hours a day and 26-30 days a month to make 22-23 episodes, each canned a week in advance of broadcast.

“Cost of television production is increasing drastically," says Sumeet Mittal, one of the two sibling founders of Shashi Sumeet Productions. “Everything from labour charges to union rates is sky high, while equipment is high quality."

Besides, show agreements between the production house and the channel are revised annually, budgets are renegotiated periodically, and actors demand hikes.

A Rs8.5 lakh (per episode) show would have an annual budget of Rs25 crore, far more than a Rs10-12 crore film," Mittal says. “The only difference is we know how much we can make per episode on TV, there is an upper cap on what the channel will give."

Of course, there are other differences when TV is compared with cinema. Unlike films, which take many months for pre-production—the period of preparation before actual shooting begins—a production team on a TV show can and often is summoned to film on a day’s notice. The week-long bank of episodes notwithstanding, TV shows don’t run with the long calendars that films are planned to, and no matter what the crisis, telecast deadlines have to be met.

That means anything from abandoning your wife on Karva Chauth, to hounding a sick actor and then shooting their close-ups in a hospital while the actor awaits treatment, says Neeraj Tolani, executive producer on Shashi Sumeet’s show Tu Sooraj, Main Saanjh Piyaji, which runs on Star Plus.

“The biggest challenge is to meet telecast deadlines with quality episodes. There are times when one is shooting for the next day or a crisis crops up and artistes may not be available, or rains in Mumbai may disrupt schedules," said Nishi Chandra, cinematographer on SAB TV’s historical comedy drama Tenali Rama, a Contiloe Entertainment production.

In some sense, this pressure to deliver no matter what is understandable. The stakes are very high indeed—the television industry in India stands at an estimated size of Rs58,800 crore in 2016, an increase of 8.5% over the 2015 figure. It’s expected to register an annualized growth rate of 14.7% to reach Rs1,166 billion by 2021, according to the Indian Media and Entertainment Industry Report 2017, co-authored by industry body Ficci and consulting firm KPMG.

In comparison, the Indian film industry grew a mere 3% over the previous year to reach Rs14,230 crore. The number of TV-owning households in India increased to 181 million in 2016, resulting in a TV penetration of 63%. The Indian film industry recorded footfalls of about 2.1 billion annually, according to a report by consulting firm Deloitte.

Despite the massive reach, the television industry today faces an array of challenges, foremost among the fact that channels are reining in budgets. Much of this has to do with lack of advertising revenue, which remains fragmented between multiple networks and entertainment platforms—now including digital media.

“It’s definitely a challenge and it’s not restricted to GECs (general entertainment channels). It goes down to news and some other genres (as well)," explains Ashish Bhasin, chairman and chief executive of media and advertising group Dentsu Aegis Network South Asia.

“In the long run, there may not be more than three or four players (channels) in each genre, they may all become part of a bouquet or some may emerge stronger than the others. You can only stretch it up to a point—you can’t have channels coming in endlessly. Sheer market forces and financial compulsions will force some of them to consolidate."

Whatever the case may be, smaller budgets mean greater risk for producers who not only have to fund the first 90 days of production—an industry norm—but usually break even on a show only if it runs for at least a year.

Increasingly, such long runs are becoming hard to come by. For example, Colors shut down its romantic drama Devanshi in less than a year, while the NDTV group was recently forced to shutter its Imagine channel because of low ratings.

“The biggest worry right now is that shows are not working. They are going off air too soon, so there is pressure on how to take things forward," says Rajan Shahi of Director’s Kut Productions, which has created shows such as Sapna Babul Ka...Bidaai, Amrit Manthan, Kuch Toh Log Kahenge and Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai.

“We’ve lost out on the youth, they’ve moved to digital. With BARC (Broadcast Audience Research Council, India’s TV viewership monitoring agency) going into small towns, a new kind of (young) audience has emerged. Free-to-air channels provide a lot of competition; so even though certain shows are topping charts, there is little talk about them. It is a challenging time for makers as well as broadcasters."

Even though most television shows are available online, traditional audiences haven’t moved there. A younger, more digital-savvy viewer is more likely to turn to digital platforms for original web series than to reruns of soaps.

Even when a show succeeds despite all these challenges, there is the age-old issue of intellectual property rights. Unlike most Western markets, the rights to most shows in India rest with the broadcast networks. Production companies make no revenues from reruns or residuals.

“The absence of IPR ownership has definitely been an impediment in more breakthrough programming coming in," says Abhimanyu Singh of Contiloe Pictures, which has produced shows such as Chakravartin Ashoka Samrat, Sankat Mochan Mahabali Hanumaan, and Adalat-2.

“Each year, a production house needs to start from scratch. There are no residual revenues coming from the content that they have already made. If you own IP, you’re able to monetize it year on year. Here you’re always dependant on shows staying on air for survival." Singh says that this leads to endless pressure to create new shows, with little time for producers to develop a long-term vision for their business. There is simply no time to slow down, let alone stand still.

Some channels have a strict policy of maintaining current intellectual property norms, but others are happy to experiment. Singh, for instance, cut the production fees he charges in return for syndication rights to Tenali Rama.

As for Porus, a Rs500 crore historical drama set in 350 BC, Sony shares the IP rights with producer Siddharth Tewary.

“Indian television has basically gone ahead with the channels financing most of the budgets. So typically all the IPR has stayed with them," says Danish Khan, executive vice-president and business head of Sony Entertainment Television.

“But for Porus, the reason was simple—there was someone who was willing to put his money and come into the game. If you look at the US, for example, content producers drive the entire industry. If that model develops in India, it’s good for everybody, though I don’t know how long it will take for us to get there."

A still from Porus.
A still from Porus.

That may well be the way forward, but right now not all producers are willing to share investment costs, and neither are all broadcast networks ready to experiment with IP rights.

Budgets and reach notwithstanding, the one allegation still levelled at TV is over the content produced. For a medium with such massive viewership, the stories, many will agree, still cater to traditional consumers (i.e., housewives who want to watch soaps). Some like Khan don’t agree with the term “regressive" and point to the variety of content produced to cater to the heterogeneous audience of this country.

Others are more upfront.

“It’s a consumer-driven market. You, me or people with urban sensibilities that have anyway moved online are not watching these shows," says Shahi.

Shahi has produced mass hits like Bidaai in the past, as well as critically-acclaimed shows like Kuch Toh Log Kahenge, based on Pakistani television drama Dhoop Kinare, which was not a success.

Indian television, though, still features variety: while soaps like Kundali Bhagya and Naagin notch up the highest numbers, big-ticket reality shows such as Kaun Banega Crorepati top charts when are on air.

Critically-acclaimed dramas catering to a niche audience, like 24 starring actor Anil Kapoor, on the other hand, struggle to find large audience—thus curbing further experimentation.

“We should have no qualms about it. Even in the West, there are bizarre supernatural shows that do well. The media often questions the absence of shows like Buniyaad (the 1980s show based on Partition) but what is the point if it shuts down in a few months? I lose money and the broadcaster loses promotional and marketing spend," says Shahi.

Channels typically spend anywhere between Rs2 crore and Rs7 crore in the week to the launch of shows, with promotional campaigns across television, digital and on-ground media.

To be sure, the big opportunity today is digital. Video streaming platforms such as Hotstar, Sony LIV and Ozee not just help broadcast networks reach out to young “digital" audiences, but also evolve into broader content creators themselves.

Coupled with American players like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, these services have thrown up a world of options for viewers, by both acquiring local content and producing originals

Currently, there are about 30 video streaming services in India. According to the Ficci-KPMG report cited earlier, with on-demand accessibility, aggressively priced high-speed cellular data services and a latent demand for differentiated content, online video-on-demand services have seen an upsurge in the past year.

As of January 2017, Hotstar leads the streaming bandwagon in India with 63 million subscribers, followed by Voot, owned by Viacom18 Digital Ventures, with 13.2 million. Compared to local production houses that spend about Rs50-70 lakh on an entire multi-episode web series, services such as Netflix and Amazon currently spend up to a crore per episode.

Producer J.D. Majethia of Hats Off Productions, which has backed projects like Khichdi and Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, calls India’s youth “evolved, clever, shrewd and restless", and says digital media, without the scheduled timings or sanitized content of television, is the key to winning this audience.

“Digital is the biggest opportunity that lies ahead," says Punit Misra, CEO of Zee Entertainment Enterprises’ domestic broadcast business. “Basically, content consumption and content quality is what we all should be focused on. Digital is a brilliant opportunity for content creators and curators to bring quality content, make it available on platforms where the relevant viewer is, and the consumption will happen."

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