Television

'Prefer reality to the unreality of soaps...':Siddharth Basu - Quiz master & Synergy Communications MD

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In the 1980s, when Siddharth Basu used to go to Delhi's INA market shopping for vegetables on a scooter on Sundays, people looked at him curiously; some recognising him as the affable and knowledgeable quiz master of the very popular Quiz Time on DD, while others were unable to place him, but still gave him a second look. Today, when Basu saunters into a room, still affable and down to earth, even the P-3 types scramble to shake his hands, not to mention young girls, who generally find the now balding quiz master still handsome and date material.

Media shy Basu is hard to pin down for an interview, but he can be total fun when in an expansive mood. Coming from a background that covers theatre, radio jockeying, debating and psychedelic campus experiences, today Basu uses all of his past to good use. His pauses are said to be Dilip Kumar-ish, while his smile is said to be a deadly weapon to disarm the toughest of guests who appear on his shows.

As Basu lets wife Anita --- once upon a time a staffer with India Today --- take care of the logistics of running and expanding the company, he surfaces at the forefront only on TV screens. In between preparing for a BBC World shoot on the outskirts of Delhi and encouraging contestants and media people to down some vodka-filled golgappas (an Indian preparation of flour with a hollow inside) at a small party, Basu answers some questions (for a change) posed by Indiantelevision.com's Anjan Mitra.

Excerpts from the conversation:

Considering you have done some high profile TV shows and began with radio at All India Radio, what is your take on the industry today?

It's a medium that is exciting. I am not saying this because my company is operating in this segment, but because I genuinely feel the medium offers you the chance to do a lot of work and vent your creative energies. However, I would also like to add in the same breath that that the Indian TV industry is a nascent one and is going through an evolutionary phase.

Technically, it can be said that your first shot at fame came through 'Quiz Time' on Indian pubcaster Doordarshan in the 1980s. Any particular reason why you haven't worked much with the mentor, if it can be described so?

Even I am wondering why this has happened as I would still love to work with DD and Prasar Bharati. More so as my orientation is towards public service broadcasting and it's a sad commentary that good professionals find it difficult to work with the public service broadcaster. The level of nepotism thriving in DD makes you feel sometimes, where is the public service broadcaster heading?

Do you regret not being able to work with DD, considering that you could offer so much to the national broadcaster in terms of programming that would be entertaining, yet educative?

In short, yes. I deeply regret not getting more chances to work with DD and why I feel more sorry is the fact that we have held negotiations for various type of programming, but have been unable to conclude a deal.

To give you an example, an information-based programme was almost finalised to be aired on DD with me even having meetings with the Prasar Bharati board members and senior officials of DD. Everything was agreed upon in principle, but the final letter giving the official green signal did not come through.

I did not want to believe it when a senior Board member had cautioned me on this. But his advice turned out to be so true. He had said that till the time a final letter from DD is issued, nothing could be taken as finalised. That is exactly what happened.

I want to make one thing clear here. My interest in working with DD is not because I want to make money, which, by God's grace, is coming in modest amounts from other assignments that the company undertakes. I feel that private sector channels would not touch the type of programming that the public service broadcaster can do or commission.

Take, for instance, Tamas (a riveting serial based on a novel by Bhism Sahni on the pains of India's Partition, which held the nation's viewers spellbound when it was telecast on DD National). Tell me which private TV channel would take up a serial based on an issue like partition? I don't think the Star Plusses, Sonys and Zees of the world would like to get into this area, not that these private channels are doing a bad job. But there are certain things that a public service broadcaster can only do and which DD doesn't seem to be doing.

Do you think DD's performance or non-performance has contributed to the phenomenal rise of private sector TV channels in India and to the success of most of them?

I cannot but agree with this. Had DD, with its vast network and other facilities at its disposal been more alert, it would have made the establishment of private sector satellite TV channels that much more difficult. DD could have not only given competition to others, but also set standards for others to follow. Sadly, this has not been the case, except for a brief period in the mid-1990s when DD's entertainment channel DD Metro (wound up in 2003 to make way for DD News) really gave the Stars and Zees of the world a run for their money and, in the process, also earned handsome revenues.

Entertainment need not be crass or puerile. It can be informative too as the likes of BBC have shown. I feel that by abdicating its role as a true public service broadcaster, DD has contributed to the success story of private TV channels that abound, which otherwise could have remained an alternate viewing and not primary viewing for the public as the situation is today.

To be fair to DD and Prasar Bharati, which manages DD and AIR, don't you feel that political interference too has contributed to a degeneration of public service broadcasting in India?

That also is true. But the managers of Prasar Bharati have to realise that the public service broadcaster could not always be market driven. At the same time, it also does not mean that dull and drab programming should be aired. Look at the BBC, which has maintained a fine balance between political pressure, commercial viability and quality programming. In the process, it has also inspired the likes of ITV.

'Fed up of quiz shows? Certainly not'

If DD hasn't done anything good for the industry, have the private broadcasters done any good? What's your experience of working with the likes of Star where market drives everything?

I would say private broadcasters have many positive aspects. For example, most of them are not reactive, but pro-active. Decisions are taken quickly and once taken, seldom changed. Of course, quite a few would be TRP-driven, but then that is how they run their businesses. My experience with private sector broadcasters has been very good.

Going by your feelings, would you be better off making and doing programmes whose performances would not be judged by ratings? Are you afraid of the TRPs?

I never said so. It's just that we have landed programmes that have saved us, by and large, from the tyranny of TRPs. Whether those programmes have been on Star One or Star Plus or BBC World, largely the ratings have not affected our relationship with the broadcaster. However, I must add that whatever ratings our programmes do get have been very encouraging.

Synergy, according to you, has been accepting assignments coming its way and has not made efforts to go out to sell an idea to broadcasters. Do you foresee this situation undergoing a change?

Over the next two years we do plan to diversify trying to tap some other genre of programming. But they would mostly be in the non-fiction segment. Up till now, we have not gone out and aggressively pitched for programmes because we have been happy generating shows for the likes of BCC (association now is of seven years), which are not TRP-led.

What sort of programming is Synergy looking at doing in the future and does it signify that you are fed up hosting quiz-based shows?

Fed up of quiz shows? Certainly not. But coming to back to your other query, we are looking at doing some reality-based shows for channels in India. Maybe after successfully crossing this juncture, we will look at fiction, but it would not be of the saas-bahu type. Still, I don't see anything of that sort happening before at least five years.

But don't you think that Indian TV channels are witnessing an overdose of reality shows and that the novelty factor would wear off soon?

It depends on how you approach reality shows. To me, truth has always been more fascinating, making for more compelling viewing than fiction. It also does not look like a passing fad to me. Of course, the craze would plateau off after some years, but such shows would always remain a part and parcel of the TV industry. Over the world such reality shows work in a cyclical format, depending on what sort of integrity such programming inspires. There have been some cases of game fixing on some shows. I, personally, prefer reality to the unreality of soaps.

But reality TV can have negative effect too on people as losers are made to feel wortless. Do you feel Indian viewers are mature enough to take such things, keeping in mind that an Indianised version of 'The Weakest Link' just did not go down well with Indian audiences?

Again, it depends on the spirit with which reality shows and competition are taken. If it's all about competition, then it's got to be sporting too. A healthy approach to competition is what is needed and I feel that we tend to underestimate the Indian audience.

Do you consider yourself to be a successful professional who evolved into an equally good entrepreneur?

I have always considered myself to be a professional and tend to agree with what my friends say that Bengalis do not make very good business persons. But Synergy has grown from a small outfit to now employing about 40 people. We are also looking at working out of Mumbai and Delhi simultaneously so as to pitch for programmes more aggressively over the coming months.

Would we see another software producer turning into a broadcaster, a la Prannoy Roy and Raghav Behl (promoters of NDTV and Television Eighteen, respectively)?

Prannoy and others are success stories and I do have high regards for them. But, frankly speaking, the idea of being a broadcaster does not excite me. I am quite content being a professional.

You have been a theatre person. Do you still dabble in your favorite past time now or regret not doing so?

I do regret not getting time for theatre and dramas as I used to in the past. But, according to me, if something has to be done, it should get my best. I know, at this time, I would not be able to give time and energy to theatre, which it demands in the form of dedication and rehearsals.

But, as I view it, even quizzing is all about drama. Look at Kaun Banega Crorepati (the Basu-directed game show on Star Plus, featuring Amitabh Bachchan, which is said to have been instrumental in changing Star's fortunes in India with one stroke). Wasn't it all about drama, suspense, and theatrics? It also featured Bachchan saab. So, in a way, I make up the loss of the actual stage by getting involved in TV programmes that have elements of drama.

It is said that you have paved the way for a generation of quizmasters in the country. How do you view competition?

For me, more the merrier. I have seen some of the quizzers and feel they are very good. But, I don't feel threatened.

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