'Like Latin America, Indian fiction can be sold around the world' : The WIT MD Virginia Mouseler

As format shows have become globalised, India offers an interesting opportunity. The consumption of reality shows has gone up even as channels like MTV have changed their positioning.

In fiction, India is also emerging as a powerful production force and has the potential to sell its products around the world.

The Wit (World Information Tracking), an agency specialised in research and information on TV programmes worldwide, is looking at expanding in India.

In an interview with Ashwin Pinto, The Wit?s managing director Virginia Mouseler talks about the company?s plans and the kind of content that works globally.


When you founded The Wit 15 years ago, what did you set out to achieve?

We wanted to explore creativity around the world and explore new ideas. We realised that other countries had good ideas and in France nobody knew about it.

Now formats have become globalised. They travel around the world. Earlier only game shows like Wheel of Fortune travelled. Now it is a world of formats. The same good idea that works in one country can go to another and be adapted to the local culture.

How have you expanded?

In the beginning, we started with eight countries like UK, the US and Germany. These are the big markets in the Western world. Now we cover 40 countries, including some smaller countries like Belgium, as they are dynamic and creative. We observe every day the new shows and

programmes that are being launched.

We have correspondents around the world that send us a weekly report about the new shows that are launching in that country with ratings. You can track our database if you are a subscriber. Television channels subscribe to us. They get to know about interesting ideas.

What are the major trends that we are seeing globally?

The most successful show is the music talent contest. Music is everywhere. You cannot have just a singer in front of an audience. There has to be a competition element. Last year the number of formats adapted globally was 10 times compared to five years back.

People are buying more and more formats. The top formats adapted globally include Dancing With The Stars, Idol, Got Talent, X-Factor and who Wants to Be A Millionaire. Another trend is reality TV. This is everywhere. Another growing trend is factual entertainment.

TV channels want to address serious social topics without being boring. They find a way to tackle important social issues like homelessness or being jobless or being overweight in an entertaining way. Instead of doing a documentary, they will create experimental shows where people can change their lives and change another life.

Could you give me an example of this?

Teenagers in the UK are difficult to handle. They do what they want. They do not go to school nor do they obey their parents. They are unruly. They are sent to another part of the world. In one example on a show called ?World?s Strictest Parents?, two UK kids were sent to an Indian family in Rajasthan. They had to adapt to discipline. The father showed them what education means to him.

Is the kind of content that works here different from what works abroad?

I don?t think so. Of course, there are cultural differences. At the same time in India Big Boss has been a success as it has been everywhere. A good idea will work anywhere if it is not shocking or provocative. It should have universal and positive values.

?The economic downturn has led to consolidation. Spain launched two new national channels and smaller thematic channels two years back; this year they merged. Consolidation has also taken place on the production front.?

How are drama and comedy faring?

They are popular. The problem is that drama and comedy are more expensive than reality TV. Everywhere local fiction is the most popular. But some channels in the UK wanted to reduce costs due to the financial crisis. They are good at fiction and drama but it is expensive. They did more reality TV. It was not a matter of success but of cost.

So the economic downturn impacted programme expenditure?

Yes! The UK was hit. A lot of people lost jobs. Producers made less content due to less ad revenue. Channels decided not to buy big budget fiction. I hope that they will do it again. The crisis impacted budgets of channels. They couldn?t pay for big historical fiction.

In Germany they decided to buy more American shows rather than produce quality local shows due to costs. Now the situation is getting better. Spain is producing good fiction but with less expensive budgets. We are also seeing more co-productions happen in Europe between countries. This allows for expensive historical series to be made. For one country to do it would be difficult. The budgets are less than what is available in the US. When there are only 50 million viewers, it is difficult to produce an expensive show.

The other impact of the downturn is that it led to consolidation. Spain launched two new national channels and smaller thematic channels two years back. This year they merged. Economically they could not attract enough ad revenue.

How has the production sector been affected?

Consolidation has also taken place on the production front. Earlier there were 10 independent production houses in a country. Now most have been acquired. It is tough for independent producers as there are few independent formats. They cannot buy a format as the big production houses have the major formats. It is difficult for a new

idea to go on air now if it was not a success elsewhere.

Channels are afraid of making mistakes. They don?t want to take the risk of buying a new idea from an independent producer.

Across Asia what has the scene been like?

Fiction in Korea and Japan is a big success in terms of soaps and dramas. After that, you have music and dance. We cover those two markets in Asia. Now we are focusing on India.

What are the plans for India?

Until now we followed formats which were adapted from abroad to see how it was done and if it had different cultural values. We did not follow fiction as there was a lot of it. Now we see channels like MTV have interesting local reality formats developed here like Roadies.

We will focus on this kind of creativity. We will also cover fiction shows on channels like Colors. We want to touch base with the people in these channels to understand what is important for them and their style of production. India is such a powerful production force in fiction. I think that Indian fiction can be sold around the world as has been the case with Latin America. Their telenovelas are sold globally.

Are you setting up an office here?

No! We have one office in Geneva. We have correspondents globally sending us reports. It could be a housewife who loves television and will tell us everyday what is going on. Local correspondents also tell us why a fiction show is successful. It could be that the host is popular or that nobody wanted to see competition. You could have a

show that runs for three hours and which delivers good ratings.

Only a local person can tell you why it is a success. You need background and gossip. Someone who loves television and is not judgmental makes for a good correspondent. Correspondents should be able to work with our schedule and way. They have to be people that I can trust. I have to count on them every week. In India at the moment the PR agencies of channels send us data.

Why didn?t you focus more on India earlier?

We focus on countries that want to export their formats. Japan and Korea are looking increasingly at exporting formats. India so far has imported formats. They did not export anything. Now local concepts are being created here that are worth exporting. Important people in television and media read the Wit. It is an advertising platform for channels.

We are seeing many foreign companies like CBS and RTL in Germany coming in now and tying up with Indian media companies. How do you see this impacting the content landscape?

They will try to widen their own sales catalogue and adapt it to the local market. It is good for viewers as they have more choice. RTL and CBS want to have more space to sell but they have to be an Indian channel first of all if they hope to succeed. RTL has been in Greece recently and they have to adapt to the Greek market. They have to develop local fiction with local producers.

What challenges are content producers and distributors facing as they try to hold on to audiences?

The most threatened are the bigger channels. In the US for instance, the big networks have lost their audiences a lot over the past five years due to newer cable channels that drew young viewers. Specialty channels came in that targeted young women.

What they have to do is create new channels themselves that are niche. The needs of people are becoming more specific. If you like golf, you want a channel for it.

What impact is new media having on time spent on traditional television?

Statistics show that people watch more television. New media is another platform. It is a new possibility to watch television. The challenge is to do good stories, ideas. Young people can connect to Twitter and Facebook. This is why the industry is developing connected television. They can attract young viewers on the TV and use what they like on their computer. Channels are working with technology companies.

Is research more important today in an increasingly fragmented television environment?

Television is a cultural product. When you see a TV show, you want to see something that reflects your society. You want to find yourself or your neighbour. Television is an image of society. You have to look at social and cultural influences to do a good TV show.


But did the downturn impact channel budgets on research?

We are a research tool. We did not lose any subscribers. We are a necessary luxury as channels need to know what is happening in other markets. We do social research to watch the social images of other countries through television. Television teaches you about the social worlds in other countries.

The youth is probably the most difficult demographic to capture. They also migrate across platforms. What can media companies do to hold their attention better?

Channels spoke about multiplatform formats last year. I think though that just going multiplatform does not make a show. It has to be an interesting story, a good topic something that touches the life of a youth.

The youth might want to interact with and control content. However this is only an additional tool. The core is to have a show that meets the youth?s issues in an innovative way. It could be in fiction, reality. One show that has worked is Young Dumb and Living Off Mum. It airs in the UK on the BBC and focuses on making youngsters who have been lazy more responsible. But it is done in an entertaining way.

The series follows a group of youth who?ve waited on hand and foot their whole lives. The series sees them living together in a house and fending for themselves. Each week they must compete against each other in tough work challenges set by their parents, designed to encourage them to become more independent. After each assignment, their parents meet to watch the footage of the task and decide who, based on behaviour and performance, should be eliminated from the competition.At the end of the series, the winner will receive a round-the-world trip for two people.

In what way has the youth perception and expectations from television changed over the past five years in India and globally?

The youth want to watch television everywhere. Earlier the family gathered at a certain time. That has changed. The youth want to watch it anytime and anywhere and enter it anytime. You cannot tell them that a show starts at 8 pm. They want to control television and not be in control of it.

What are the mistakes that television channels catering to the youth should avoid?

It should avoid giving them lessons. It should not talk down to them. Television is not a tool of power. Broadcasters should realise this. Television is a consumption good. Television should understand that it has to be attractive and at the same time offer flexibility. It should not be a big brother. The youth want information in an entertaining way.

What lessons have come from shows that have worked for youth?

Youth needs guidance and coaching. This is why there are so many coaching shows for the youth. Guidance can be given but not through lessons. It should be done through experiments like involving somebody?s life being changed for the better.

The youth also want avenues that allow them the possibility show their talents. That is why talent shows are popular. However everything does not have to be about being a star. There are talent shows for ordinary jobs like a butcher, nurse. Television has to offer experiments on different worlds.

What about content targeted towards women?

There is an interesting show in the US that has been adapted in many European countries called ?The Real Housewives of?. They follow real housewives from a neighbourhood. You can enjoy watching the life of a real housewife. It is not necessarily about the successful woman professionally. She can be middle class or upper class. You can see her daily life. The ideas came from the fiction show Desperate Housewives.

Another interesting thing is that shows that only targeted women earlier are also hooking on men. For instance, cooking shows are very successful. Here you have Masterchef India. This genre also targets men. Men and women compete to cook the best meal and welcome guests. Japan loves this genre. But what is interesting is that countries like France and Italy which are famous for food have less cooking shows.

In terms of television consumption patterns, what differences are there globally?

What we have seen is that it is often linked to when people have dinner. So in the UK the news is at 7 pm, in Germany it is at 8 pm and in Spain it is at 10 pm. In the UK the average length of a show is half an hour. In Italy it is three hours.

In the first 20 minutes, the host is greeting the audience and saying nice things. In the UK it would be over. In Turkey, a fiction show is four hours. Turkish people like watching TV, going to eat and going back to watch the show.

Are any genres becoming more popular?

Hidden camera shows are making a comeback on television globally. This would work well in India. These shows have a lot of comedy. Big global events are becoming stronger drivers for channels like a world cup.


In India we are seeing a trend where music channels to capture youth have moved away from music and doing different shows. Is this something being seen globally as well?

Yes! They realised that they needed an identity. Music video clips can be found in many places. MTV realised that they had to be something else than just a music channel. When MTV started, it was the only place where you could find music clips. That is not the case now. They needed a clear personality. The music channels realised that they need to have a face, a real identity.

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