'Kahaani Terri Merri' - lessons from a formula gone awry

Late last year, we (not the viewers but the trade) mourned the untimely demise of Madhuri Dixit‘s Kahin Na Kahin Koi Hai on Sony Entertainment Television (SET).Less than a year later, SET is about to pull off air its most recent big budget Balaji soap Kahaani Terri Merri (last episode airs 15 May) - actually billed as the biggest and Ektaa Kapoor‘s dream project. When it launched, SET officials had referred to it as the most ‘lavish‘ and ‘extravagant‘ serial ever made on Indian television. Now, media reports have quoted SET officials as saying that the ‘blockbuster‘ had nothing to differentiate it from the ‘rest‘ of the ‘kitchen politics‘ sagas!

Sure enough, not many people will cry over the not really unexpected jettisoning of Kahaani Terri Merri.

All the same, there are important lessons to be learnt from the same... not just for SET but also for Star (is fatigue setting in for saas bahu sagas?), Zee (will offbeat offerings and bold experimentation succeed if showcased on the No. 1 channel platform?), Sahara (should it have gone all out and promoted its forthcoming blockbuster Karishma more than what it is currently doing?) and all the other channels. Questions, questions!

The following is a post-mortem analysis of the same:

* Differentiation not possible in this age of standardisation

The point is that serials today cannot be different from the rest because channel programming teams have a clear cut idea about how the sets should look; how the actors should look; the locations should look.

The walls of "middle class" homes in serials looking as if freshly painted and gearing up for a paint TV commercial, women characters wearing silk sarees while working in the kitchen - these are supposed to be aspirational according to channel programming teams.

Writer director Ravi Rai who has been appreciated for work in serials and soaps such as Sailaab, Thoda Hai Thode Ki Zaroorat Hai, Imtihan, Sparsh and Teacher recounts one particular instance: "The representatives of the programming team and other departments of one particular channel conducted meetings for nearly two months and 14 days on just one aspect of the programme which I had created for them - the title montage. Interestingly, none of them thought to ask the creator or originator of the programme - me. They came with several different concepts - including visuals of a Swiss chalet."

* Creatively inclined TV software makers have to contend with a heavier dose of interference now than ever before

If one goes down memory lane, it was individuals with passion and zeal who created some of the most well known entertainment brands. Most of these successful programmes were created when channels were fledgling and channel programming executives were unheard of.

In the current scenario, there have been so many instances of creatively inclined software makers either rebelling against the interference or compromising in entirety due to financial and other considerations.

Sagar Arts marketing director and producer Prem Sagar has something interesting to say: "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."

Sagar adds: "Private broadcasters realise that they cannot meddle with the creativity of reputed houses such as ours which have doled out winners since half a century. Remember, creativity is all about deewangee or junoon - a certain kind of passionate madness."

* Good ideas and concepts get lost during implementation

There is a strong feeling that several producers and channel programming executives have thought of some good ideas, themes and concepts. However, they are so bogged down in the routine that they simply don‘t have the energy or conviction to carry their ideas forward during the implementation stage.

* Programming executives and producers ignore literature

Cost-conscious producers don‘t invest in quality writers. Moreover, very few amongst the business minded programming team members would appreciate that successful ideation for entertainment software has to plunge deep into the ‘ocean of literature‘ to come up with ‘pearls‘.

At the end of it all, the writer is supreme. Even Amitabh needed a brilliant script and magical words "Computerji..." for Kaun Banega Crorepati.

* Tendency to cover one‘s back

Career conscious programming team members or producers who wish to make a quick buck always have a tendency to avoid risks and stick to tested formulae. Executives and producers who have got used to a particular kind of a lifestyle seldom have the will to take risks and compromise their existing situation of well-being.

* Realisation that "Entertainment brands are illusory, elusive and magical..."

We quote a statement made by the best there is in the business today - Star India COO Sameer Nair - at an advertising seminar. Nair stated that successful entertainment products evolve daily and have a life and personality of their own. Once created, they feed on themselves, constantly reinvent themselves and transcend their basic achievements. Nair also agrees that there is no one winning formulae. One keeps on experimenting till one accidentally hits upon the ‘golden idea‘.

* Proper Marketing and communication is a must

Other than plastering billboards and painting trains, Sahara TV is still to go into overdrive to create hype and hoopla around its 260-episode multi-starrer daily serial Karishma (debuts 12 May) starring Bollywood actress Karisma Kapoor and other stars such as Jugal Hansraj, Arbaaz Khan, Sanjay Kapoor, Aayub Khan. Media would lap up these stars!

It is pertinent to mention that MAX did a much better job by leveraging media attention - good or bad - on Mandira Bedi. Eventually, the publicity rubbed off on Extraaa Innings and got ‘extraaa moolah‘!

Speaking at an ad industry forum, UTV Group director Zarina Mehta mentioned that the reasons for the success and failure of TV programmes were linked to marketing and communication plans; ability to offer simple propositions with a new twist and proper testing of concepts and new ideas. Mehta also stated that there were clear gaps in children‘s programming and comedies.

Star‘s Nair felt that brands are basic to human existence and the concepts of names and nationality has originated from this need. Entertainment products are inanimate but the marketers breathe life into them. However, a human touch is essential to provide a lifelike experience, Nair added. The objective is to ensure that the entertainment brands outlive the humans associated with the brands

* Marketing hype fails when the software doesn‘t have a soul - ‘Give me more‘ soul!

SET tried it all and pulled out all stops to develop a marketing and promotional buzz around Kahaani Terii Merii. It entered into an alliance with Diamond Trading Company‘s Nakshatra brand to entice viewers. But this did not succeed.

Post Kaun Banega Crorepati, Kyuunki Saas...and Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki..., Star India tried several things and kept experimenting. The programmes have got ratings and have entered the Top 100 lists but none of the new programmes have created the kind of impact the above three did. Is the soul and heart missing somewhere? One remembers what a film critic said about feature film maker Karan Johar‘s first (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai) and second film (Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham): "The first one was made straight from the heart while he used his brains to make the second one!"

* The last rule overshadows all the above - the Indian housewife is omnipotent and omniscient

As MPG South Asia CEO V Ramani says: "Women audiences have got hooked on to the top channels. Indian women have no time or inclination to experiment too much. Our research indicates that the same women (not just in terms of psychographic or demographic profile) watch the same programmes on certain time bands on certain days across channels."

Ramani adds: "The audiences will take their own sweet time to switch on to Sahara and SAB - despite the recent strong bids made by these channels. It will require a major innovation or a brilliant idea to change things topsy turvy!"

No one is claiming that it is easy, but the search for that major innovation or brilliant idea needs to be stepped up not slowed down. After all, the current formula is looking decidely frayed at the edges.

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