"Good software doesn't need a slot or a vehicle to become popular": Prem Sagar Sagar Arts marketing director, producer

He wears several hats - producer, director, cinematographer, marketing director - and has contributed to the enviable success of the Ramanand Sagar family. Meet Prem Sagar who has been involved with some of the mega blockbusters on Doordarshan (Ramayan, Vikram Aur Vetal, Shri Krishna, Alif Laila) and in Bollywood (Lalkar, Charas, Ankhen). He has come a long way from the time he traveled around the world to convince sceptic financiers to invest in a mythological serial calledRamayan which the Sagars were producing for DD in the 1980s - currently, it is the financiers who are chasing him.

Sagar is an ardent admirer of his father Ramanand Sagar (whom he lovingly refers to as the "pauper prince turned emperor!") and seeks inspiration from the maestro. His office in Natraj Studios, Mumbai, is full of mythological characters, artifacts, religious scriptures, technical books and of course, innumerable awards.

A student of FTII Poona, Sagar won several awards for making serials which changed the face of Indian television. He has also received the honour of being an associate of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain (ARPS) and international recognition - UNESCO award in Tokyo instituted by the Asian Cultural Centre. He has also been a member of the selection board of UPSC (Union Public Service Commission) and has given a lot to his alma mater FTII (Film & Television Institute of India) by being a lecturer, examiner and member of the selection panel.

Sagar is now gearing up to realize the family's dream of creating another epic, Durga - the third in the trilogy following Ramayan and Shri Krishna. Sagar spoke to indiantelevision.com's Ashwin Kotian on DD policies, his current and future serials. Excerpts:

What does DD need to do in order to gain its rightful place as the premier broadcaster in the country?

Doordarshan (DD) is a giant and mind you, I wouldn't like to refer to it as a "sleeping giant". It is soon going to be a forerunner in the Rs 30 billion plus TV advertising pie soon after conditional access system is implemented. However, advertisers are taking it for a ride considering the kind of mileage they are getting by using it as a medium.

DD needs to develop a corporate culture and sensibility coupled with an innate understanding of ground realities. The business like attitude is a must and babudom must disappear. DD officials must make greater efforts to ensure that every second of available airtime becomes remunerative.

The inherent problem with DD is the fact that it cannot fully shake off its semi-government public broadcaster image. DD officials are also handicapped by the fact that they are answerable to several authorities including the parliament. Their decisions are sometimes clouded by all kinds of safeguards. However, all the people involved in decision making must make an attempt to understand the situation which exists in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi where advertisers tend to demand and command.

However, all said and done, the fact remains that DD has the potential to rake in more money and simultaneously balance its responsibilities as public broadcaster. Which private channel, today, can attempt to do what DD is doing - in terms of providing infotainment and entertainment content to cater to different strata of society in urban and rural India?

At the end of the day, one must remember that India is not just about Malabar Hill in Mumbai or Greater Kailash in Delhi or MG Road in Bangalore.

Have DD officials made any right moves recently to stimulate growth?

Recently, Prasar Bharati CEO KS Sarma and DD DG Dr SY Quraishi have made some highly commendable moves to stimulate growth. Hats off to them for reducing the FCTs (free commercial time) on prime time viewing to 150 seconds. The minimum guarantee levels have been brought down to more realistic levels.

Earlier, the FCTs would be in the region of 5000-7000 seconds. If excess time is available, then the producer is in a losing situation as there is a glut and the advertiser can dictate. With a finite and comparatively lower secondages available, the producer can command a premium and the advertisers have to toe the line.

DD too gains from the situation as long as its top producers gain. Also, earlier DD producers used to devalue their properties in an attempt to recover their investments and pay the exorbitantly high telecast fees. Now, this trend is on the decline.

Is there anything DD officials can do in order to grab a greater chunk of the ad pie?

The new rules for additional spot buys which become applicable from 1 April 2003 are highly unrealistic. Till 31 March, the additional spot buy rates were Rs 60,000 for DD National and Rs 20,000 for DD metro. Even at this rate, producers were unwilling to commit and DD was not adding revenues to its kitty.

From 1 April, these rates have been hiked to Rs 66,000 (DD National) and Rs 22,000 (DD metro) - which is very illogical. A top producer like me - who has popular serials such as Ankhen and Ramayan - is stuck with nearly 400 seconds of wasted airtime every week. Similarly, if one takes into consideration the wasted airtime for other DD producers, DD could end up losing money for almost 3000 seconds per week.

How can DD afford to bear this wastage in a scenario where private broadcasters are clamouring for every single rupee of advertising? I remember an instance where I once flew from New York to Toronto at $ 50 instead of the regular charges which was five-six times the amount. The airline officials realised that the value of the plane seat is a finite property and were glad to get something out of it rather than not getting anything.

Another instance which I can talk about is the case of DD Bharati. DD Bharati can still make it big with its focus on arts, culture and other programmes to appeal to the sensibilities of the urban and rural populace. I felt that it was a great concept. I myself had made some pilots and sent them for approval. But the configuration was poor and there wasn't any way in which producing a serial would have been an sustainable proposition.

"After all, it is the top 10 producers - Sagars, Sanjay Khan, Creative Eye, Cinevista, BR TV, Adhikary Brothers - on DD who manage to give the bulk of revenues!"

What are the solutions which, in your opinion, could change things for DD?

DD officials must formulate a policy in close consultation with the people on the battlefield; namely the producers, marketing concessionaires and ad agencies. After all, it is the top 10 producers - Sagars, Sanjay Khan, Creative Eye, Cinevista, BR TV, Adhikary Bros - on DD who manage to give the bulk of revenues to DD.

DD officials must proactively seek inputs and feedback to increase their remuneration. It is their duty to get the maximum out of saleable properties in order to sustain the social awareness and public interest programmes (content for farmers, on health, rural issues). A task force or panel comprising of DD officials, producers, ad agencies and marketers must be constituted.

This is no time to sit in glass houses but the need of the hour is to plunge onto the battlefield. Collectively, all the constituents can work out solutions for the various problems which DD faces. Also, DD must learn to back its successful war horses - serials which become a hit must be given extensions so that they can become entertainment brands. World over, there is a trend that broadcasters always back their best programmes and continue to persist with them.

Remember, you can't always get a hit; but when you get one, never let it go. This is a lesson which DD must learn.

"Good software doesn't need a slot or a vehicle to become popular. We have always believed in making entertainment products with a soul - with passion."

What is the secret of the Sagar family success?

Good software doesn't need a slot or a vehicle to become popular. We have always believed in making entertainment products with a soul - with passion. We never even have a slot in mind.

Even as filmmakers, we always used to be very cautious. We believe in making content which a father and daughter can see together. We also believe that we have always delivered 5-star products at 3-star costs. When we forayed into television, we realised that there was a gap in terms of family values and the culture had been diluted. We conceptualised our trilogy - Ramayan, Shri Krishna and Durga.

We tested the market by airing Vikram Aur Vetal because the kind of investments which were required for Ramayan were humungous. We couldn't afford to go wrong. At the peak of Vikram Aur Vetal's success, I had bookies calling me to delay Vikram's answers by two minutes as they would accept bets from people.

We used the same actors/actresses (Arun Govil, Deepika) in Ramayan and people identified with them. It became an even greater hit. I remember, for Vikram Aur Vetal, we got the Sunday 4 pm slot and forRamayan, we got the Class C Sunday morning 9 am slot.Our content converted these time slots into Super A category.

Would you believe me if I tell you that DD didn't give us an extension for Vikram Aur Vetal and the last episode hasn't been shown? It was just a question of one episode and even that wasn't granted to us. Even today, Ramayan has developed the Monday 8 pm slot for DD. World over, there is a trend that broadcasters always back their best programmes and continue to persist with them. Remember, you can't always get a hit; but when you get one, never let it go. This is lesson which DD must learn.

"Kitchen politics (saas-bahu themes) will eventually lose their sheen but mythos with substance and soul will rule forever"

Do mythological serials have a future in the near future?

All our mythological stories have some element of underlying timeless truth and universal knowledge. More importantly, they are entertaining.

Do you know how much revenue our weekly serial Shri Krishna gave to DD? - in excess of Rs 1.3 billion. Despite this, it was pulled off air at its peak and we had to approach Zee TV for the most important khand of the epic.

It is nearly two decades since Ramayan made its debut on the small screen. Recently, we have spent Rs 20 million in redesigning Ramayan. We have come up with a digitized version with contemporary sound track, look and feel. Even during its re-run, Ramayan on DD-2 gets a TRP of 8.2 (23 February to 1 March) and 7.8 (2 March to 8 March) in the 8pm to 8:30 pm slot on Mondays. This is at a time when cricket and war fears kept people glued onto private news and general channels.

Durga will be the biggest and the greatest in our trilogy. It will have the most lavish sets (shows a book with the pictorial script and an artist's impression of the Vaikunth set in Durga). I believe that kitchen politics (saas bahu themes) will eventually lose their sheen but mythos with substance and soul will rule for ever in India.

How do you promote your content offerings?

We have a full-fledged marketing team and a publicity team. We send out press releases to more than 400 publications in urban and rural India. We also create several promotions in order to sustain interest in our content offerings.

For all our hit serials - including Ramayan, Vikram Vetal and Shri Krishna, we have also created DVDs and VCDs and are promoting it on the mass markets. At one time, there were Vikram Vetal Lido games and several books written about stories. Ramayan also spawned a similar merchandising efforts. We have actually banked upon the merchandising opportunities and showed the way. We have made several efforts to promote our offerings in markets abroad. We still get enquiries from places in South Asia, Europe and the US.

"Through 'Ankhen', we have advocated the view that there is a need to be perceptive; keep our ears and eyes open in these trying times"

Are you surprised with the success of your serial Ankhen on DD National which has been climbing peaks of popularity?

The Sagar family was at its peak in Bollywood after giving a row of hits like Arzoo, Ankhen, Geet, Lalkar. It, however, surprised everyone by venturing into the world of television. The decision invited a lot of criticism.

Now, the third generation scions of the Sagar family - Amrit and Shakti Sagar - are still keeping the flag aloft with their latest hit serial Ankhen. These young boys have returned from Hollywood after imbibing the latest tools and techniques. When they saw their grandfather (Ramanand Sagar)'s film Ankhen, they expressed a desire to convert it into a TV serial.

Through Ankhen, we have advocated the view that that there is a need to be perceptive; keep our ears and eyes open in these trying times. There is a need to be alert in this age of terrorism wherein there is a constant threat from insiders. We cannot depend on the military and the police alone.

Ankhen, which is airing on the 10 pm slot on Thursdays had a TRP of 10.8 (23 February to 1 March) and 11.5 (2 March to 8 March). The serial has already won awards and has captured the imagination of the people in these troubled times. Good content with a soul always sells irrespective of cricket mania or war-related pre-occupations.

Will you be working with private broadcasters? How will tackle interference from their creative teams?

We have been approached by private channels and within two-three months, we shall make some announcements. As far as interference is concerned, I would like to draw a simile between the stars of 1960-70s. The stars in those days were good actors and they never bothered or dictated to the good film makers. They realised that these film makers would enhance their creativity and stardom.

Private broadcasters realize that they cannot meddle with the creativity of reputed houses such as ours which have doled out winners since half a century. They don't even tell us what to do as long as they are okay with the concept and the theme. We too realize the fact they will be looking for certain quality standards and will certainly live upto their expectations. It is a win win situation for all the parties.

Remember, creativity is all about deewangee or junoon - a certain kind of passionate madness. When we were making Ramayan, I went across to several financiers to help us with the production. All those suited people wearing ties appreciated what we were attempting but none of theme ended up backing us. They were the eventual losers. We didn't care about the money or pressure. We just decided to do it and went ahead with our vision. That is the deewangee or junoon which I am referring to.

What is your advice to media planners, buyers and advertisers?

Media planners must combine intuition with hardcore statistics. There are still some planners, advertisers and buyers who still go by their gut feeling. They end up being winners. The ratings system is great but it can have its pitfalls too because the sample sizes are so small.

Earlier several ad agencies used to conduct their own annual surveys using large sample sizes across the country. For instance, O&M and HTA (JWT) used to map 525 cities and 1000 villages. Hindustan Lever does it even now. Ad agencies must continue with these methodologies which are pretty accurate due to larger sample sizes.

Some other clients also use feedback from their dealers as alternate methods to TRPs. You will find most of the national advertisers such as HLL, Ujala, Godrej, Dabur, P&G, LG Electronics following these methods.

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