"We are aware that we need to build in differentiators into our programming" : Sameer Nair Star India's chief operating officer

In this concluding part of a two-part interview with's Thomas Abraham, Star India COO Sameer Nair does some straight talking on programming issues.


When we talk Star Plus, the endless soaps always come up. But what about new programming formats?

The question would be that since it is emotion based, why not out of emotion based? That would be a flawed approach as when you are telling a story in a fiction format, fundamental to watching that story is the emotional chord that the story strikes with the audience. That is how you make movies. In fact, anything in a fiction format. Movies flop when they cannot reach the audience pulse. You need to strike an emotional chord and why would you want to get away from it.

"When you produce successful programmes that have to deliver eyeballs, viewership and ratings over an extended period of time, a sense of sameness sets in "

I am referring to shows like 'Sanjivani', which was originally conceived as 80 per cent medical drama and 20 per cent of soap element. Today the situation has reversed and it is basically the same soap you see on television. It just happens to be set in a hospital.

We have received criticism on Sanjivani. This criticism has also been made of a couple of other shows. We are aware of it. It is an arguable point that everything tends to look the same and a point well taken. When you produce successful programmes that have to deliver eyeballs, viewership and ratings over an extended period of time, there is a sense of sameness that sets in.

There is that danger. We are working very hard on finding a way to deal with that. We have always dealt with our lives in small units over small periods of time. We deal with the problems one by one. We never look at the long term plan because if you do, you are dead.

For KBC, at the beginning, we did not look at overhauling a 24-hour channel. We just did 9-10 pm and we put Kyunki on air. Slowly we built around that. Then we built the afternoons, Sunday mornings. Then we tackled the kids. Then we started one-hour genres between 9-10. As you do this, you add and do different themes. It is a step-by-step evolution. In the process of gaining eyeballs and dominating that category you do new, different, good stuff and along the way you always runs the risk of falling into the traffic jam of the sameness.

It is the formulaic approach. That is just the way the formula works. One looks to repeat it. It happens all the time in Bollywood, Hollywood. If we were in isolation, you would not feel the sameness but for us what has happened is that our competition has chosen to go down the same track. When we do four daily soaps in prime time that in itself is a defendable point. Then you add the daily soaps on Sony, Zee, Sahara. When we did KBC, this was followed by Khullja, Kismay Kitna Hai Dam, it was fine. However, when you add to that Sawal Dus Crore Ka, Chappar Phaad Ke, Kahin Na Kahin Koi Hain, it becomes a herd thing. The herd thing is characterised by an accentuated sense of sameness. Imitation may be the purest form of flattery but after a point it becomes damaging as it just becomes too much. While we are ahead and have a loyal viewership it acts as a drain on our output. Josh is a step towards the direction of moving away from sameness. Kashmeer was also a good step in that direction. We do try to push forward.

We are aware that we need to build in differentiators into our programming. We are on the lookout to do things that would help us in this process. It is better that we do it before our competition. After Josh we are looking at the youth genre, which is a bit different.

But can we be assured that Josh will not follow the formula?

Josh is very raw. It tends not to use makeup like everything else you see on television. It is outdoors and is about male bonding. It has a mother, romantic angle but is not classically what we are often accused of being a soapy soap. You will not hear complaints that this is not what was assured and you have made a saas bahu out of it. On the other hand you need emotional content. At the end of the day you don't connect with the gunfire but the guy firing the gun. People never connected with Amitabh Bachchan and his violence. They connected with Bachchan and his problems. People do not connect with the costume a person is wearing but rather with that person.

If you take Hollywood, I think that Americans are far more formulaic in their production and also far more sophisticated when they churn out formula. Take Independence Day for example. In the finale, when the planes have to fly off, the President decides to go in a plane because he was a pilot before he assumed office. The air force is choking with emotion. How much more corny can you get? In real life however, after the World Trade Centre attacks the President (George W Bush) took off and hid to avoid being attacked. Independence Day was successful because it is the business of entertainment, fantasy.

"Our content is not familiar to the extent that it leads to boredom or so different it causes alienation. To maintain that edge becomes a real task "

How do you go forward programming-wise?

A lot of our activity is strategic planning connected. So far what we have discovered is that a strategically planned creative activity is far more successful than a creative activity. We would never let our creative urges overtake our business requirements.

It is a far bigger challenge to continue making what works and continue in the same manner as opposed to changing it. The task in keeping a Kyunki going requires a high degree of inventiveness and is a challenge. While people say they want change, in reality that is not what they are looking for. It is a human failing. How do you keep a balance and make something that is familiar yet different? This is a philosophy that we build our content on. Our content is not familiar to the extent that it leads to boredom or so different it causes alienation. To maintain that edge becomes a real task. You run the risks of slipping back into formula tradition or trying to do everything different.

When we create a show we know that there are different strokes for different folks. When we came with KBC we came up with something completely different. We were nowhere and we knew that if we had to get into it then we had to do something totally spectacular. Having done that and reaching a position of power and strength the challenge now is to keep expanding the empire. When we were the barbarians we had to go for the jugular. It is now dangerous for us to do different things for the sake of the creative urge and at the same time it is dangerous to keep stamping our formula.

What about sitcoms? Are sitcoms like 'Friends' (which addresses adults) or 'Full House' (which targets families) not possible in India?

For me the biggest challenge is to produce a sitcom, which has the variety of Friends or Seinfeld. The problem is that writing comedy requires a serious effort.

In Indian television you need a bank of writers dedicated to comedy and who are remunerated to the extent that they do not have to look for other work. If a writer gets only a standard payment and has to write soaps you will not be able to produce quality. We are now making a concerted effort towards making a sitcom for Indian television. In the past you had Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, Dekh Bhai Dekh and Hum Paanch always tickled me. In recent times you had Office Office. For me these are four great comedies. Malgudi Days was good but I thought it was bittersweet.

We are now putting our minds towards making a sitcom. This is a big project for us. We will need a bank of writers paid to the point where this will be their sole focus. They must not do any other work. There are enough good comedy actors. For them to succeed you need a good script and so when the writing problem is solved all other parts come together.

Another problem is that there is a subtle change in mindset between writing comedy and writing jokes. In a dialogue you and me can have a conversation, which can be hysterically funny if it is written as such. However if the laughter is to be generated out of me saying something corny then that does not gel.

We are putting together a team for the comedy project, which will be a madcap dream for us. It should go on air by October-November.

What about the south? There are some great comedies being made there. Why can't that be tapped?

I am a South Indian and have lived for many years in Chennai. The Tamil language humour is fundamentally superior to Hindi. Those guys are just funny and even their movies are funnier. They tend to be less caricatured and more experimental. We don't tap that source because the language, milieu is different. Their writing is very much rooted in their culture. If you try to translate a Tamil comedy into Hindi it would probably bomb.

Even for Friends it won't work. Zee made Hello Friends, which was quite a sorry thing. This happened despite the fact that the cast was good with MTV VJs. There is a lot of learning to be done.

If you want to make great comedy then you should watch all the episodes of all the great comedies. You must see what they are doing that makes it so funny. You must understand from them the techniques, which will work. Understanding the technique and then applying it gives you a chance of doing something that will work. I don't think that simply putting five jokes into a situation will work. Comedy is to be treated like an action genre not like a soap in terms of cost.

"How do you keep a balance and make something that is familiar yet different? This is a philosophy that we build our content on "

While Star World has gone in for a revamp, except for 'The Kumar's At No. 42' and 'Goodness Gracious Me' everything, especially in the 6-8 pm seem to be re-runs. The feeling is that Zee English is more on the ball in terms of programming mix, new shows.

As far as Star World's new look is concerned there is a lot of strategy involved. It will take time to play out and I am sure that we will have a completely different conversation on this topic in three months' time. Having said that we now have a beam focussed on India. We have done a whole degree of rescheduling. I admire my colleague Steve Askew who from Hong Kong used to programme the channel for four time zones from South East Asia all the way to Israel. The challenge was to create programmes where people from Tokyo to Tel Aviv would come in at primetime. It is a big task and so we decided to create a separate focus on India.

Zee has done a good job of promoting the shows and of creating that perception for Zee English, which is something we are normally very good at.

When HBO came along it created so much hype that six years of Star Movies were simply forgotten and the perception was that HBO is better. However we fought back by doing what we always did. It was a perception battle we faced with a channel that was "simply the best". It was a bitter fight.

I would say that there is genuinely good programming on both Zee English and Star World.

As far as Channel [V] is concerned Popstars 2 is not creating the desired buzz despite the hype and hoopla. Did you accomplish what you set out to achieve with Popstars 1?

I think that it achieved what it set out to do. We did Popstars because we were in a wild battle with MTV. In those days we were 0.5 and they were 0.8 (ratingswise). Popstars was designed to attract attention to Channel [V] and put it on the map. It was designed to go out touch and feel and produce India's first reality show. Find the band, have them perform, cut an album.

It is the same thing as the Star Movies-HBO battle. The music business and VJ is the most fraught with my favourite four-year cycle. Every four years you have a shifting audience that keeps coming in. What is cool for my 18-year-old brother is un-cool for me. In four years time when he turns 22 the situation is reversed. Nothing is cool for him as he has to go to work and this is what typically happens in this business. In 2000 MTV had completed a smooth, supreme two-year run while Channel [V] was doing its reality number, grunge number.

I inherited Channel [V] at that time. We upped the battle last year with Popstars. Three years ago we checked out UD, Gaurav, Purab. Today it is the same people but now they are really cool. It is like Oh! They love you so much. We have really gotten back into the music game. We are all over the place. Our music has always been superior but the problem for us was that people focussed on everything nebulous but the music.

There have been media reports that many of the people turning up for auditions for Popstars II can't sing to save there lives but are just in it for their one minute of fame.

The boy-girl band auditions have happened in Bangalore, Delhi, Lucknow and Chandigarh. Last year it was a lark when all brave people showed up. This time having seen what we have done with Viva a lot of real talent along with a lot of lark have shown up. We lived up to our promise last year of spending a fortune on the chosen people.

This time we have also incorporated dancing to go with the singing. Your performance ability is important as you are not going to be a playback singer. Therefore we need to see your ability to perform.

This year the whole process has seen improvement in methods and filtration taking place. We have that experience. It is going to coincide with the release of Viva's second album.

Coming back to Star Plus, you have introduced a new 13-episode format with Josh. That would mean a three month run. So if the show does well will it return after a three-month gap?

If it comes back on it will be after six months. Three months is too short for production. It takes 15 days to shoot and another 15 days in post-production for an episode. The period was always planned as a short run. Our hope is to make this into a seasonal thing. Usually comedies, action, talk shows work well in seasons. Some genres like a daily soap don't work well in seasons.

You mentioned that a lot of your activity is strategic planning connected. As far as systems, processes are concerned, anything new?

What we found was that with the high pressure work a lot of production work is very delayed. Till the very end you don't have tapes, material. On the one hand, you have the danger of sameness and on the other there is the danger of a crumbling production scenario. Tapes arrive in the morning to be aired in the evening.

So now we are all working together to return back to basics in a manner of speaking. The process cannot be so disorganised.

I have spoken to my production team and said that we need to pull all tapes back by a month. If you have a sudden burst of creative genius then let us hear it 30 days in advance, not two days in advance. We are trying to systemise the production line without losing that creative feel. I don't believe that the last minute thought defines creativity. It doesn't enhance the process.

It puts undue pressure on systems, the production community, my own team and things go wrong. Then costs go up. Everything must be better planned so that you are not facing the danger of Murphy's Law, which applies more in this business than anywhere else - "that if something can go wrong it will". The film business falls into that danger. You have only one day with the hero and he fell sick. This is so typical and routine.

Television has evolved with its explosion of shows into this thing, which we are now trying to work out of. At the end of the month, we want all material in for the next month. In the long run the process is more systemised and allows for genuine evolution of creative thought. If the best creative mind is concerned with the next day's episode then I am not getting the best out of him. It is too much of a hand-to-mouth, day-by-day existence. I want to systemise the process so that my best creative mind can sit back and think about the next step.

As a creative person you must have a feel of who your audience is and where it is headed. We are telling a story. If your story needs to be changed all the time then something is fundamentally wrong. I would prefer changes to be an exception rather than a rule.

When did you institute the process?

The process was instituted a couple of months ago. People are working overtime now as there is that hump to cross. But by the end of June we will be a month in advance.

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