Television

"Soaps will continue to be the staple diet of viewers" : Manish Popat TV Content COO UTV

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Ronnie Screwvala promoted UTV has been in the media business for over 20 years, pioneering cable TV in 1981. The content business is just one part of a very diverse portfolio the company offers but it sheen seems to have been taken off the company‘s programming what with many new players entering the field and Balaji Telefilms in particular hogging the limelight.

Manish Popat chief operating officer, TV Content, UTV, speaks at length to indiantelevision.com about where the channel is headed and expresses confidence that it will soon be back at the top.

Shagun, the afternoon soap on Star Plus, is currently your number 1 show. Was Bhabhi an effort to consolidate further on the afternoon band?

UTV has been first to explore the afternoon time slot. We have always believed in the slot. We were the first to launch the afternoon daily soap concept in India with Shanti on DD 1. Shagun has reemphasised our belief in the afternoon time slot and is today the No 1 afternoon show and in fact beats most of the prime time shows across channels.

When Zee TV did its big bang re-launch last year with a whole crop of new shows, you had all of three programmes - Sarhadein, Hip Hip Hurray II and Choti Maa, all belonging to very different genres. Especially Choti Maa,which was a remake of the Tamil superhit soap Chitti, was expected to do well but all three fell woefully short of expectations. What do you think went wrong here?

I don‘t think these shows failed and I am certain even the channel will agree to this. The same shows with the channel‘s buoyancy back will do very well when they will be re-run.

Take Sarhadein - The first time a bold Indo/Pak love story was tried. It was a different daily, not shot in the four walls of a studio, like most dailies today but shot on locations like Malaysia and Mauritius. In fact, I will not hesitate to state that it was the best programme launched amongst the whole crop of Zee‘s new shows.

Choti Maa was again a very different genre, with beautiful locales, never before seen on any dailies on air today or in the past. A different subject. A bold try. It is still running. Doing well for itself. The word of mouth for this programme has been tremendous. We did learn some lessons in terms of migrating shows from the south.

Hip Hip Hurray - A 7.30 programme. The first programme to be produced as a sequel. In its target audience did quite well but did not deliver in the overall audience.

While critics complain that there is a sameness to programming on the main entertainment channels, doesn‘t the pressure of ratings lead to a situation where everyone loses because producers and broadcasters have to perforce roll out only what sells?

This one is definitely a critic‘s question. However, the fact remains that it is the viewers who decide what they want to see and they will continue to do so. As regards sameness to programming we do not subscribe to that theory at all. Look around, you will find more game shows now than ever before.

Continuing on that track, take the case of the two new medical series Sanjivani on Star Plus and Dhadkan on Sony Entertainment. Being the producer the celebrated Lifeline, do you really believe that the same show could have done as well today? Accepting that a show on Star Plus has an immediate advantage as it is the numero uno channel so there is that initial momentum. How do you explain why a Sanjivani, which appears to be more an M&B kind of romance series has a 6 rating, while the more gritty and realistic Dhadkan has a 0.6 rating?

Lifeline was produced then with realism and at a certain pace suiting the audiences then. However, if we were to produce Lifeline in today‘s time we would do it with the same sense of realism but of course with a different pace and work more on characterisations.

"I don‘t think these shows failed and I am certain even the channel (Zee) will agree to this"

Your new show Kehta Hai Dil, a weekly set to replace Asoka the Series on Star Plus, will address different issues like dowry, teenage infatuation and bigamy at a social and emotional level. Could you elaborate on what went into this show and how it came about?

Kehta Hai Dil is a story where each character tries to reach out to you and has something to share with you. It deals with the social and emotional issues which will set your mind thinking. It has a nice outdoor feel to it which most metropolitan audiences miss and small town audiences relate to. It‘s a refreshing change from the usual rut of daily soaps being doled out at primetime of every channel.

After what seems like an eternity of soaps, there suddenly seems to be a revival of interest in big ticket weeklies. Especially those with patriotic themes. UTV is doing a big show on the army helicopter division, Miditech is doing one on the air force Sara Akash and Contileo is doing something around Kashmir and the terrorism issue. Why the sudden interest in such fare. ?

This is a coincidence. But as far as UTV, goes as mentioned earlier, we always believed in giving our audiences different genres and this is part of that. However, the current mood of the country will only add to the interests for subjects like this.

Then there are the big budget action serials. There are reports that Nitin Keni may be doing a big show loosely modeled on Miami Blues while UTV is said to be doing a weekly that will be shot in Bangkok? Does it not seem a bit risky considering that the soap continues to hold such sway over the ratings?

You have to keep trying newer stuff. Nothing ventured nothing gained. No one would have expected a film (Lagaan), in today‘s day and age, where the main hero is clad in a dhoti to be such a rage and even get nominated to the Oscars.

As for the risk, this is a given. As soon as a certain plateau of production is reached, audiences will demand for the next level and we will have to deliver. However, it will be important to point out here that our base of production level is very low even today compared to the levels across all mature markets. Television programming will see a double, triple digit growth.

One common factor among most of these new big budget shows is that they will have 13 or 26-week runs. Do you think this brings in the possibility of seasonality coming into Indian TV programming. For instance, if a particular series does well, the option is there to bring it back after a break, if not then the show still completes its run?

Yes, I guess so. This is a very interesting concept. Internationally it is followed by all. For the Indian audiences, this is new but they will settle with it.

All your new offerings (starting from Bhabhi and continuing thereon) appear to be on Star Plus? Is this by accident or design?

We have always maintained a right balance/mix of programmes across channels. We had three programmes on Zee. Unfortunately, Shubh Vivaah on Sony has got delayed.

Which among the current crop of UTV shows (on air or just about ready to release) are you most excited about?

Kehta Hai Dil, since it is just being launched and is on the prime time band. However, Shagun as it is No 1 afternoon show and does better than most of the prime time shows across channels, Choti Maa - a daily with a difference. A different face and look on Indian Television. Bhabhi - competes internally with Shagun and we consider this very healthy. Agni Satchi - This is amongst the two programmes that has the visibility on Vijay TV.

"We would like to wait and see for some more time before jumping in again (in Doordarshan)"

Are you looking at other genres? What are they as a long term perspective and in the short term?

I have answered this before. We will always look for new genres. In the long term and in the short term We constantly develop and create multi-genre shows in every category - game shows, children, soaps, thrillers, action, etc.

Around the middle of last year UTV director Zarina Mehta was quoted as saying UTV is reviewing its relationship with national broadcaster Doordarshan. "The National Network is becoming a difficult channel to work with given its high rate card for the afternoon band. We are reviewing what to do with the show (afternoon serial Shenai for which it was paying Rs 300,000 per episode). We are reducing our dependence on the national network," is what she was quoted as saying. Are you still of the same opinion or is there some sort of a rethink now that DD has reduced rates?

Frankly, yes. We would like to wait and see for some more time before jumping in again.

Could you explain your production set-up? How does the allocation of different programmes among the creative heads and executive producers take place?

Well. each Creative Directors (we have six of them) have a team of executive producers and production managers working with them on projects. A single creative director would handle a good mix of daily and weekly and will have different EP‘s and PM‘s working on them.

What percentage of UTV‘s revenues comes from programming today?

TV Content is about 30 to 35 per cent of UTVs revenues

What was the breakup earlier, different or the same? Any reasons for this?

Identical.

You do Tamil programming as well. How many shows are currently on air and on which channels?

Currently we have Agni Satchi, a daily on Vijay TV. Also, some of our earlier programmes are also running - Gee Bhoom Bha, a children‘s daily, Jenmum X , a horror bi-weekly, VOTR - a weekly.

Could you elaborate on UTV s plans as far as Tamil programming is concerned?

On the Corporate front we own 49 per cent of the Tamil Channel Vijay TV and this states our seriousness about the Tamil market.

Tamil is a very important market for us and will continue to remain so. We have a full fledged set up in Chennai and we would be doing many more shows in the near future on the Tamil channels.

Are you looking at other regional languages?

We just completed a Gujarati daily on ETV. The answer therefore is yes. We are constantly on the look out for opportunities to create, channels, language not withstanding.

You also do programming in Mandarin, and Bahasa (Malaysian). Looking at the foreign languages, what are the hours of programming that you do in Mandarin and Bahasa respectively?

Approximate 1500 hours of programming a year between Mandarin and Bahasa Malay.

Which countries screen these shows and do you have any hit shows?

These shows are telecast across South East Asia. Last year our programme SPIN in Singapore was the No 2 show. IDAMAN our daily is the longest running in Malaysia.

What is the production arrangement for shows in these two languages?

The structure is similar to that in India. We create and produce for broadcasters in these countries.

UTV launched the first daily soap in India - Shanti and had many aces up its sleeve in the form of successful TV serials. The late eighties and early nineties when UTV held sway and was synonymous with quality programming seems rather distant now. Where did it falter then to a position where other producers surged ahead and what is UTV doing to get back on top?

Yes, there seems to be a perception that we slipped somewhere. I think that this has to be viewed not in context with:

a. The fact that we have a diversified base of content from movies to animation also, where we have made our presence felt.

b. Of the over 20 players eight years ago, only two or three have really survived.

c. The last one-and-a-half years has seen an average with one single producer occupying disproportionate shelf space on Indian Television.

We have also maintained a high level of quality. I do believe we are the "preferred choice" with the broadcasters. Having said all of that, there is a huge creative focus within the company for us to occupy the top spot in the near future.

What about the imminent introduction of conditional access systems (CAS) in C&S television. Do you not think it will be a boon for producers because it will be much easier to identify niche audiences and therefore increase the scope of diversity in programming?

Definitely YES

If you were to do a bit of crystal ball gazing, what to your mind will the picture be on Hindi entertainment television one year down the line? Will the soap story continue to rule roost or do you see changes coming in?

Well I have always maintained this. Soaps will continue to remain the staple diet of viewers But alternate genres will remain too. There will be a right mix.

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