Indian networks still wary of reality TV shows and 'soaps'!

CNN‘s chief Chris Cramer‘s speech at Ficci Frames 2003 has really put "reality TV in India under perspective! Taking about reality TV, Cramer said that this new broadcasting phenomenon, which has touched all lives in recent years and has gained popularity in the US and in Europe, is drowning the rest of the people in broadcasting.

Cramer called it a "distraction" which took audiences minds off important things in life. However, he congratulated Indians who have somehow managed to remain beyond most of the "Big Brothers", "Bachelors" and "Survivors" and more power to Indians for that! Are Indian networks still wary of reality TV shows and "soaps" which have scaled peaks of pop?

In India, the reality television scene has been making waves due to individual efforts of players such as AXN. AXN derived tremendous mileage from bringing Mike Whitney down last year to host a series of Who Dares Wins India Specials.

AXN‘s Rohit Bhandari (extreme right) with the winners of the India leg of Who Dares Win

Whitney sure created quite a stir during his India visit and attracted hordes of youngsters and young-at-hearts"! Spotting a market in this niche area Zee also launched the its Reality TV channel on 1 February.

But what about the latest breed of "reality merging with fiction" kind of programmes which can be shown on general entertainment channels? What is the reaction of Indian programming executives to the success of programmes such as Joe Millionaire, Bachelor, Bachelorette in the west? Will such a tightly structured reality show (in formula and execution) which typically sets its participants into a narrative mostly plotted out before the tape ever rolls, ever succeed in India?

AXN India‘s vice president, sales and marketing Rohit Bhandari says: "There has been no real history to prove that shows like Bachelor, Bachelorette, Joe Millionaire would not work in India. The popularity of these shows will depend a lot on the kind of marketing that goes behind it and the way the show is built up. Though one would get this feeling as to why should an Indian bother about what is happening with someone in America. But as long as the viewers are made aware about the show and the show is entertaining and provides viewers with what they are looking for, there is no real reason why these shows should not do well."

However, in India very few are thinking about such shows after the debacle of the Madhuri Dixit show in 2002. A Sony Entertainment Television (SET) India spokesperson says: "The important thing is that programmes work in a context and an environment. Dating is not part of the Indian cultural milieu and is not a concept that television-viewing families would relate to."

Abroad, the recent successes have resulted in optimism and new plans have been formulated. Sky‘s Reality channel ‘Sky One Real‘ will be launched early this summer, states a Digital Spy report. The network holds the rights to many home-grown series such as the ...Uncovered strand and imported series such as Temptation Island and Boot Camp, all of which could make appearances in the new channel‘s schedule.

The UK‘s first dedicated reality channel, ‘Reality TV‘, made its debut in October last year. The station immediately reported ratings as high as 70,000, a respectable figure for a minority digital channel. It has already made a presence in India on the Zee-Turner platform. Of course there are still distribution issues that need to be sorted out first, before any talk of ratings can even begin for the India venture.

Survivor Amazon contestant Joanna Ward

Since CBS‘s Survivor rushed to the top of the Nielsen ratings three years ago, network executives have known that reality shows can be enormously popular, stated a New York Times report in the beginning of the year.

American Idol on the Fox network, led the way, drawing 25 million viewers two nights running and becoming the most-watched non-sports shows in the network‘s history.

he success of shows like American Idol, The Bachelorette on ABC and Joe Millionaire on Fox was so impressive that numerous executives told the Times they were now ready to embrace plans for a radical restructuring of the network business, which previously had been talked about only as dimly possible, long-term adjustments.

A New York Times op-ed article by Catherine Orenstein says that the most recent crop of reality television shows taps the fantasies we first learned from fairy tales: castles and fortunes, true love and romantic destiny, and above all that most perfect storybook union, the ‘‘fairy tale wedding.‘‘

Not only will reality shows continue to flood network‘s schedules next fall, but television executives were also predicting such developments as an end to the traditional television season. Instead of the time-honored formula of introducing shows en masse in September and ending them in May, broadcast networks want to stagger the shows‘ debuts and banish repeats from the schedule almost entirely, the Times had reported.

In the US, however, a new poll indicates that the viewer is starting to tire of Big Brother and Survivor. Though TV ratings paint a different story, the InsiderAdvantage survey of 1,000 adults conducted between 28 February and 4 March indicates that America‘s affection for the reality TV genre may be coming to an end. The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus three per cent.

When asked: "Are you becoming tired of so-called reality television programmes?" 67 per cent of respondents said "yes," 22 per cent said "no," and 11 per cent did not know or did not answer. Thirty-two per cent of respondents in the 18-to-29 year age group said they were not tiring of reality TV, the highest positive percentage. However, even among this youngest segment, 63 per cent said they were becoming tired of the genre. And all other demographic segments indicated a strong future trend away from such programming, according to the survey.

However, this does not mean that the ratings will be poor for the reality television shows which will air in the US in the near future. It will probably be several months before the public really starts to rebel against the reality concept. And even then, if the alternatives are other reality programmes or the ultimate reality - war coverage - viewers may well continue to keep these programmes hot.

The desirable "Joe Millionaire" - Evan Marriott

InsiderAdvantage chairman and syndicated columnist Matt Towery has been quoted as saying that cable programmers would do well to keep in mind the term ‘becoming‘. Just like the Who Wants to be a Millionaire craze had to end, this second phase of reality television may be heading for the home stretch by the end of the year. In India, of course, Star Plus will most likely not renew the Indian version of the show Kaun Banega Crorepati. However, the success of Channel [V] Popstars and the girl band Viva it spawned has already inspired the network to plan the launch of similar shows in 2003.

"However, reality shows and studio based game shows could be revised in concept to meet the cultural requirements. The reality show concepts will work if they belong to the Indian ethos and are executed keeping in mind the sentiments and beliefs of the people. Anything that offends the sensibilities will not go down well with the viewers," says a SET India spokesperson.

So will the future see reality shows with a touch of soap-element in terms of tight scripts, twists and turns? Reality merging with fiction to ensure viewer interest?

"That sounds like a definition for docu-dramas which have worked extremely well for our channel. We have had Bhanwar and Missing - two shows that have combined reality with fiction and successfully recreated scenarios that have appealed to the viewers," says the SET spokesperson.

AXN‘s Rohit Bhandari adds: "Reality with a touch of the soap element, is already happening, though the content is packaged heavily around being a reality show. For example the Amazing Race on AXN is one such example as it is not just a reality show with people racing around the globe but it also has some elements of a

drama building up in the form of inter personal relationships between team mates and teams."

"There are twists and turns that keep developing as the show progresses and there are instances where a team that is leading in one episode, might just lose their way and could probably get knocked out in the next episode and vice versa. Instances like this bring out a lot of drama and emotion within the show and make for interesting viewing," says Bhandari.

Western media analysts claim that the perverse charm of Joe Millionaire is that it‘s so upfront with viewers about its dishonesty -- which makes it among the most honest of the reality-TV genre. Will Indian TV programming executives have the nerve to showcase such "real" dishonesty?

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