"With 'Saara Akaash' we want to prove that we are capable of delivering mega scale fiction too": Nikhil Alva Television software producer

Nikhil and Niret Alva are a long way from just being known as celebrity offspring. Nikhil started off in the early 1990s composing music for ad jingles in Delhi, while Niret was a known print and TV journalist. Initially identified as former cabinet minister Margaret Alva's sons, the brothers soon grew out of the shadow when they found their calling in creating television software that was a pioneer in its genre.

This was around 1992-93, when the duo, aided by a couple of friends, got together for making a series of 18 short films on the girl child for UNICEF. The series, expected to take up a couple of months, wound up consuming over a year.

Then came Living on the Edge for Doordarshan, meant to be a 13-part series, but which acquired a life of its own and ran on for a mammoth 250 episodes and went on to bag several awards, including the Green Oscar, and got picked up by Star Plus for retelecast in 1997. By then, the company had left music behind and moved full time into software production.

In 1992, Miditech also produced India's first film based game show for DD Metro Take 2. By 1994, the company began to be identified as a travel, infotainment and research based production house. BBC entrusted it with its auto show Wheels in 1997-98, a show that will enter its 10th season this September.

The projects the company does for international production houses, programmes that air in over 25 countries, contribute over 50 per cent of the firm's revenues today. Miditech today has its own 100-strong team in Delhi, complete with cameramen, editors and researchers and its post production facility - a three-storey building with a basement devoted to edit suites.

In an interview to the media after a long while, CEO Nikhil Alva chatted with indiantelevision.com's Aparna Joshi about Miditech's achievements, his take on the current television scene and his hopes for the company, apart of course, from Miditech's latest offering on Star Plus, Saara Akaash.

'Saara Akaash' marks Miditech's shift to fiction in a major way. Why did you have to move away from your core competency?

After Kaun Banega Crorepati, there has been a perceptible shift towards pure entertainment on television in India. Our association with Star goes back a long way, since 1997, when Living on the Edge was telecast along with our travel show The Great Escape. But now, there are few opportunities for infotainment programming. In fact, in the last three years, the market for these has definitely shrunk, although at one point, it was expected to grow. Doordarshan, for whom we made a lot of shows, didn't commission any programmes for this period, and the BBC, which planned to increase the quantum of locally produced software, didn't go ahead with the plans.

It was then we decided that we had to explore fresh genres, to increase our presence in Mumbai, which had become the hub of satellite television. This we did by making Kabhi Biwi Kabhi Jasoosfor Sony, which ran for an estimated 20 - 26 episodes but didn't really click.

But now there is a lot riding on Saara Akaash. We are already established as capable of delivering mega scale non fiction, with Saara Akaash we want to prove that we are capable of delivering mega scale fiction too.

'Saara Akaash' was envisaged to launch sometime late last year. What took the series this long?

The series was initially envisaged as a half hour show and we had even canned eight episodes. But when Star saw it, they felt it had the potential to be scaled up to become an hour long weekly. So it was back to the drawing board for us - it meant redoing several things, changing the cast to suit the changed look and feel. It did create a certain amount of depression within the team - there were 70 people here working on it, and there were several practical difficulties in the actual shooting - getting the access to the air force base for shooting, dealing with the restrictions and changed schedules brought about by border tensions. All this did delay the series, but it helped us to perfect the look of Saara Akaash.
Does this mean that if 'Saara Akaash' clicks, Miditech will shift in a major way towards fiction?

We are here to stay in this genre because that's where the future of Indian television is. As forSaara Akaash, I believe it has the potential of being a winner. Regarding more fiction in the pipeline, we are in talks with a couple of channels, but nothing that we would like to announce before Saara Akaash takes off.
"Zee was definitely bold enough to launch a show like RAAAH, but it could not match it with equally strong packaging"

'RAAAH' was another big ticket show from the Miditech workshop last year. Why didn't it work?

RAAAH was a brilliant concept and it was executed just as brilliantly. Besides, it was an indigenously developed concept, not a borrowed foreign format. It had great potential, but unfortunately for us, it turned out to be show number 25 on Zee TV, the channel that had already launched 24 new shows in a row without any of them really making a mark. As a result, there wasn't much enthusiasm in the channel when they promoted that show - it had no marketing push, no real publicity and no hype created around it.

The time slot we had - Sunday noon, was probably the worst that genre could have expected. While we had excellent sponsors for the show - we were giving away apartments, cruises and motorbikes for the winners on each episode, the show could not attract the right audience.

If the show had been put on prime time, say 9 pm on Fridays, it would have been a trendsetter in its genre with all other channels vying for a similar show. Zee was definitely bold enough to launch a show like RAAAH, but it could not match it with equally strong packaging.

If you get the opportunity, would you consider making another 'RAAAH' for some other channel?

Yes, of course. We are already talking to two channels about a similar show and something should be finalised by the end of this year.

As for reality shows, we are making a mega reality show Roadies for MTV that's kicking off on 15 August.

You also have another reality show on MTV - 'Bum Mein Dum', which has been rated as the second most popular show across all music channels. How do you see this trend of different genres doing well on music channels?

That's the route most music channels will take in this country. For example, in the US, MTV plays very little music, as there are several other channels supplying that. The idea is to cater to the youth TG in every way possible, which is what we have done with Bum Mein Dum, which has been done with the channel profile in mind.

Reality shows in fact can work very well as they are seasonal, short runs that help to break through the clutter of regular shows. Reality, in fact, I think is a weapon in your arsenal that you can use to break through the clutter at regular intervals.

Which is easier to produce - a reality show or fiction?

Reality is not controlled, because you are at the mercy of the elements and changing circumstances all the time. As against that, fiction has a bound script and happens in controlled circumstances. But both are challenges in their own right…I would not say either is easier or more difficult…

Does the impending implementation of conditional access in the country worry you in any way?

It's still early days to comment on how it will all eventually work out. But if the truth that niche channels will thrive in a post CAS era holds out, then we will be ready to capitalise on the advantage with our decade long experience in providing niche content.

Yes, production budgets may suffer in the process, but then it is all part of the game.

"Content such as we provide, even though it may not fetch mass ratings, can still draw a large enough audience to be commercially viable"

Where do you see the trend on television going - last year was supposed to belong to the reality genre but that did not happen.

We are still in the soap era. Though of course there has been one change - last year, dailies were the in thing, while now it is the weekly soap that has pride of place. Of course, another hot space is the news channel genre and we are also getting into the news content sphere. We are in talks to supply news features to Sahara Samay Rashtriya, Star News as well as the revamped DD News that's scheduled to be on air soon.

Are you still doing shows for Doordarshan?

Doordarshan continues to be an important platform for us. After all, we started with Living on the Edge on DD. We have a new weekly show, Science of India, coming up soon, which will deal with the various branches of Indian science through the ages. We are also toying with the idea of making health and travel slots for DD Bharati.

Is it easy to secure talent of the kind you need to produce slick, well researched documentaries and factual programming?

Mumbai has that advantage. Here, there is a huge pool of technical and creative talent. While it is relatively easy to get good editors, cameramen and technical people, it is the writers and researchers who are hard to come by. At times, for international projects, we have had to even bring in writers from abroad!
Any expansion plans for the company?

By the year end, we plan to set up a base in Singapore, because that's the place which is becoming the documentary hub for Asia. In fact, the Singapore government aids in funding of documentaries too - one of our own documentaries for the National Geographic has been co-funded by the Singapore government. We are now pitching ourselves as an Asian production house rather than focus only on Indian themes, which will anyway run out after a point.
How are you funded ? Is there an IPO on the cards?

We have ploughed back funds into expansions thus far. Besides, ICICI has a 25 per cent stake in Miditech. Yes, as we expand, we will definitely look at fresh avenues for funding, whether it is an IPO or some other source.
How about starting a channel of your own some time in the future?

Though it is a temptation, our core competence is content. Broadcasting is a totally different ball game. If, in the future, we do think of a channel of our own, it would be in partnership with an existing and established broadcaster, not alone. Of course, there is space for good factual programming, although we should not forget that television primarily is an entertainment medium, which people switch on to get entertained, not necessarily educated. But content such as we provide, even though it may not fetch mass ratings, can still draw a large enough audience to be commercially viable.

Where do you then see Miditech a decade from now?

I see it as an international production house working with international producers across the globe.

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