Television

'Challenges of cultural adaptability of international formats in India are tremendous' : Siddhartha Basu- Synergy Adlabs CMD

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Synergy Communications founder Siddhartha Basu shot to fame as the curt quizmaster in BBC's Mastermind India. But he sure knows a thing or two about drama. And that comes across as no surprise since he has a background in theatre.

No wonder then that Basu was able to blend drama and quiz in the immensely popular Amitabh Bachchan-hosted show Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) that turned around the fortunes of Star Plus.

Post the acquisition of Synergy by Adlabs, Basu now plans to scale up operations to produce content across various genres. And he is already making inroads into the regional content market.

In an interview with Indiantelevision.com's Arcopol Chaudhuri, Basu speaks about how the Adlabs association has helped and shares his views on the rapidly changing Indian television scenario. He hopes the relationship between content providers and broadcasters will be redefined.

Excerpts:

How has the acquisition of stake by Adlabs helped Synergy grow its business?

With the Adlabs association, we have the resources to specialize in various genres and programmes. We may not have been able to do this as we were a small production house. We were known for large productions, quality of content and conduct. But whatever new challenging projects we took up in the recent past, we did not have the resources. We needed the manpower and the infrastructure to strengthen our hands as content producers to make quality programming across all genres.

The association with Adlabs, thus, gives us a more sound financial grounding and standing amongst the competition. It empowers us not only to grow creatively, but also as a business.

Have you expanded your production facilities post the formation of Synergy Adlabs?

It's a developing story. We are already functioning through two production offices in Delhi and Mumbai. Adlabs has made substantial investments in high-end infrastructure and equipment, which we are using for Jhalak Dikhla Jaa and our fiction show Jiya Jale.

Are you looking at producing regional content as well?

We are looking at a couple of assocations down South. Synergy Adlabs has taken a strategic stake in Chennai-based production house Shri Om Comtech, which will serve as our hub for producing Tamil content, to begin with.

Which shows are you producing on the regional front?

Post our association with Shri Om Comtech, we already have two daily shows on air on Kalaignar TV. One is Manjal Mahime at 8:30 pm, while the other one is Akkatangai in the afternoon at 1:30 pm. Both the shows are doing well.

In the coming days, we are also looking to produce regional content in languages for Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada. But we have done regional content before as well. That was before the Adlabs association. It was a cricket-based quiz show called Howzzat which aired on Tara. But then again, regional content is our secondary market. Hindi GEC programming still remains our primary interest.

Will Synergy Adlabs make inroads into films and animated content?

We are currently focused only on television. But we're going to go deeper into providing dubbing services, creating promos and formats.

How would you describe the existing equation between content providers and broadcasters?

Till now, it's been a very one sided relationship and the plea from broadcasters has been that you operate under slender margin of profits and be happy about it.

There has been lack of accountability on key creative and programming decisions on many occasions. Often you have proxy producers and creative directors, who are arbitrary and unaccountable and it becomes a ridiculous situation.

We fortunately have had cordial relationships with broadcasters, but that has been the generic equation between the channel and production house. They retain the IPR and we work on a commissioned basis. We are hoping to see that equation change and settle down into something that benefits both parties.

With the huge demand for content coming from the existing and upcoming channels, how do you see the relationship evolve between the content providers and the broadcasters?

I think content producers have a wonderful opportunity now by not only creating content for the new players but also for the existing players. We will now have to generate more, produce better and produce it on better terms. When I say better terms, I don't just mean better financial terms, but with better control over the content. There is ownership of the formats we as content producers own and create and in our case, we are looking at associations and relationship, not only as a job shop where a network merely uses a content producer on a work-for-hire basis. Hopefully, you should see production houses literally work as producers, maybe get into a revenue sharing arrangement, or establish their presence as a production partner. And that's the kind of association we are seeking.

Which broadcasters have you really enjoyed working with?

We've had a good working relationship with almost all broadcasters - Star, Sony and now even Sahara's Filmy.

Any shows that you're doing for Zee?

No shows for Zee at the moment.

Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) really took Star Plus up the ratings ladder. Ironically, the channel, it seems needs another KBC to make it regain its lost audience share to Zee.

I think shows like KBC and Sa Re Ga Ma Pa work as tent poles, since they lift the overall audience share. Indian Idol did something similar for Sony. So there are several non-fiction shows which act like that. But to really lift a channel, you need all kinds of programmes and a variety in programming, which creates a bandwagon effect.

You have been largely associated with quiz-based shows. Until last year you worked on Jhalak Dikhla Jaa, which is a celebrity-dance show. What prompted the foray into this genre?

We've been best recognized for our format shows. But it was always a desire to do a variety of genres. Today, we as a production house are looking to specialize in all genres - of which talent shows are one. We are also handling a couple of fiction projects. The motive will be to associate with every genre thoroughly and professionally. We somehow got linked to the quiz-based shows.

'Till now, it's been a very one sided relationship between content providers and broadcasters. We are hoping to see that equation change'

There were a number of quiz based shows that followed Kaun Banega Crorepati, none of which could replicate it's success. Why do you think quiz-format shows have dried up now?

I think it depends upon what the format is. In one sense, for some formats, the audience base is becoming much larger and on the other hand, some shows make it even more fragmented. So certain formats will appeal across segments and communities, like KBC did. That was a sort of tent pole effect it created.

But as it happens in films and television, there were attempts made to replicate the format in some way or the other and they did not work. Some shows work, some don't. It's not necessarily the format that is to be blame. But we hope to tap popular genres for wider appeal. Bollywood Ka Boss is one such show - it's a film based quiz show and we hope that it will catch up. At the end of the day, a show has to have a specialized audience.

How much has KBC changed the profile of your company?

The profile, I believe, changes with every new show that we do. With Jhalak Dikhla Jaa, the question mark transformed into an exclamation mark. A quiz master had now put on his dancing shoes. We are known for our thorough backend technological setup for the execution of television programming, a certain quality of content and class of presentation. That is the benchmark we will take to any genre we work upon.

We have seen different phases in the Indian television scene. There was the time ofHum Log, Buniyaad and Mahabharat. Then there were the soaps which continue even today. Now reality TV and talent hunts have become popular. How do you view this change?

I think Indian television is at the cusp of change. We're still seeing the dominance of ultra-traditional soaps - a dulhan is titled bahu in one and lakshmi or a beti in another soap and there's the saas that comes along as well (laughs). So we are becoming a nation of weepy family soaps.

Which direction is Indian television moving in? Any genres of programming that are still missing?

I don't think it's moving in one direction. I think we are still in an adolescent phase. The range within which we have been operating is still very limited. This is something that will now start finding definition. We are still a very amateur television watching community. We've been used to Doordarshan, which created a sort of a monoculture. Surprisingly we had a lot of variety then within those one or two channels of the public broadcaster, than we do now.

The reason why I see the change coming is because broadcasters are actively seeking things that differentiate and mark them out. There are still so many genres that are waiting to be tapped - comedy in the form of sitcoms is something that's missing.

Do you see more of localization coming in?

Definitely. I think Indian television will get intensely local. People with the raw, strong local cultures and flavours will see rapid growth. And these are audiences who are not looking at the Hindi GECs and English channels. Regional channels are more dynamic and they will experience a strong following. The storylines and concepts adopted by the regional channels are often more liberated and open-minded than the ultra-modern, regressive approach adopted by Hindi GEC programmes. Some trends will be borrowed across both genres of channels as a cross fertilization process.

It is said that interactive TV is the key driver to the future of television programming?

Interactivity of programming is important and they will drive key shows, but fatigues will set in after a point of time. Audiences will want to participate - maybe vote, for a dancer, a singer they really like. But you cannot build an entire programming strategy around that.

What kind of associations or affiliations are you looking to build up internationally?

We are looking to forge associations with various format owners and not merely confine ourselves to one. We have worked in the past with Endemol and even on Bluffmaster, but then how many of our broadcasters are keen on format shows? Very few.

Why is that?

Several factors account for it. It's the cost, the complications, restrictions, adaptability and also the format that must deliver for them. In many ways, the Indian market is responsible for it. Here Thums Up outsells Coke, so you can't have a McDonalds outsell the existing local delights. You cannot transplant a certain experience already tried in one country and hope that it will work. It's a cautious decision. India is the only country in the world where Dancing with the Stars is Indianised, indigenised with the rules as well. So the challenges of cultural adaptability in India are tremendous.

What are your views on the existing audience measurement practices?

I think our advertisers and broadcasters are too heavily dependant on it. And I don't think that's a rational approach and I question it. Look at the number of SMS votes the talent hunt shows receive?they run into several lakhs. And the existing rating system merely confines itself to seven thousand boxes. So it's far from a perfect system. And in a heterogenous demographic for a country like ours, the measuring system is full of ifs and buts.

Okay. When are you getting back to hosting a show?

Me as a host? No. I've never really fancied myself much in front of the camera. I've always liked to be involved in the conceptualization and execution of programming. I know the kind of effort that goes into it and there is enormous amount of satisfaction in putting a certain piece of communication together.

How did you narrow down upon Boman Irani as a host for Bollywood Ka Boss?

Boman is a fantastic host on stage. He's also a national Bollywood buff. He can sing, joke, dance, do impersonations and can really perform. Having said that, it was the channel (Filmy) which really circled on him and was game for it. And I went along. Even the format of the show was something they were very keen on. The show aims to find the best informed person in the world of Bollywood.

When is KBC back for its next season?

Sometime next year. And Shah Rukh Khan's hosting it. The agenda is different everytime. In KBC 2, it was about conquering the weekends. In KBC 3 it was about strengthening the 9-10 pm slot. You never know what they decide upon this time. Would you believe, once upon a time the Sunday 9-10 am slot was the most sought after slot since it aired Mahabharata!

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