Hindi GECs 2014: The year of experimentation

MUMBAI:  Experimentation, experimentation and experimentation. 2014 was the year when India’s Hindi general entertainment channels (GECs) went to the lab and tested out many new programming concoctions for the Indian viewer.

Whether it was in the form of new channels or new programmes or new time slots or episode budgets, channel and creative heads played the quintessential scientist.

Three new channels emerged in the specialised Hindi GEC space: Sony Pal, Zindagi and Epic TV. They had yet to make a mark on Indian viewing habits, though Zindagi was the only one that got the thumbs up from TV critics. 

Star Plus continued to lord it over all in the ratings space for most of the year, but the second, third, and fourth spots witnessed a see-saw battle between Zee TV, Life OK and Colors. Sony, which once ranked second amongst GECs sank to a lowly sixth position during 2014 even as it’s flanking laughter channel Sab, stayed steady through 2014 at the fifth spot.  The year also saw the near demise of what was once the No. 4 GEC - Sahara from the troubled Subrata Roy-run Sahara Group.

Star Plus: The year started on a good note for Hindi GEC market leader, Star Plus.  An extra dose of fiction entertainment was on offer to the audiences. It made a strategic move of extending its prime-time (6 pm - 11.30 pm) weekday fiction band to Saturdays too. The move worked wonders for the channel and helped further to maintain its Numero Uno position on the ratings chart.

Taking a cue from the runaway success that Colors’ Comedy Nights with Kapil had raked in, the channel launched Mad in India, placing it head to head with it. But sadly, Gutthi (Sunil Grover) failed to connect with the audiences. 

In a bid to attract the younger Indian demographic to the channel, it decided to focus on real urban stories, rather than melodrama based on the heartlands. It took the big budget, limited episode route, streamlined its programming and made the channel look peppy.

On offer for traditional Star Plus viewers was the YoYo Honey Singh- backed India’s Raw Star (IRS), the more current and urban-based Airlines and film-maker Ashutosh Gowariker’s Everest - a story about a girl wanting to clamber on to the world’s largest peak and the city-focused Nisha Aur Uske Cousins.

Just as 2014 was ending, it unveiled, the spell-binding Private Investigator (PI) and Tu Mera Hero.

Aamir Khan’s much talked-about Satyamev Jayate (SMJ) made a comeback in two seasonal parts in keeping with CEO Uday Shankar’s commitment to do socially-relevant programming. Estimates are that while IRS entailed an investment of Rs 55 - 60 crore, SMJ cost Rs 4 crore an episode and Everest about Rs 50 lakh an episode. These are the budgets that TV producers have been dreaming of.                                                                                                                                                                                       The heavy investment was worth it as the network’s sales folks managed to make advertisers fork out Rs 3.5 - 4 lakh per 10 seconds spot and Rs 6 - 12 crore per sponsor for SMJ (Airtel was the presenting sponsor with Aquaguard being the co-sponsor and Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson, Skoda Auto, Axis Bank, Berger Paints and Dixcy Scott, the associate sponsors) and Rs 3.3 - 4 lakh per 10 second spot for IRS. Almost all the inventory for the shows was sold out, making it a win-win year for Star Plus.

With many launches to its kitty, the channel executives had to bring the curtains down on some earlier shows: finite mythological series Mahabharat and drama Saraswatrichandra.  The former helped Star Plus get a tremendous connect with mythological show lovers, and its producer Swastik Productions walked away with many awards.

The Sanjay Leela Bhansali produced Saraswatrichandra, which was handed over to the Sanjoy Wadhwa run Sphere Origins, too ran its course and was shut down in 2014.

On the other hand, existing fiction shows have always been great contributors to Star Plus’ ratings. To connect with the youth a lot more, storylines changed to have a progressive outlook. Diya Aur Baati Hum continued to grab eyeballs as it turned out to be the highest-rated No. 1 fiction show across all channels, followed by series like Yeh Hai Mohabbatein and Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai. Shows like Veera and Saath Nibhana Saathiya too continued to win over audiences this year.

Colors: The year saw a tug of war between Colors and Zee TV for the second position. Colors finally won the battle and stood steadfast at No. 2. What created the magic for the Channel in 2014?

Colors this year created a league of its own with its strong non-fiction portfolio. From the fifth edition of Fear Factor: Khatron Ke Khiladi with the tagline ‘Dar Ka Blockbuster’ to India’s Got Talent, from Jhalak Dikhlaja to Bigg Boss 8, it has kept viewers on the edge of their seats and given them a dose of entertainment 365 days of the year. Comedy Nights with Kapil too contiued to make people laugh and stood strong at the ratings chart.

The fact of the matter is that advertisers have never shied away from investing in these brand properties. For Jhalak, the channel had increased its ad rates by 15 - 18 per cent over last year whereas for Bigg Boss it hiked them by a whopping 30 per cent.

Apart from a different theme, the 2014 season of Bigg Boss observed a lot of brand integrations on the show. To go beyond the 10 sec to 30 sec TVC, it had brands from TVS Scooty Zest to Britannia; from Garnier Men’s Products posters to using Oppo Smartphones for any task.

Another highlight was that after five long years, the channel changed its title sponsor with Vodafone dropping out and Snapdeal coming in.

Further strengthening its non-fiction band, for the very first time the channel launched a celebrity talk show - The Anupam Kher Show - Kuchch Bhi Ho Sakta Hai. The finite series was hosted by actor-producer Anupam Kher.

On the fiction front, with new shows failing to deliver good numbers, old programmes continued to shine and the longest-running series Balika Vadhu is a case in point. Madhubala too won the hearts of many until mid-year and sadly had to end its three-year sojourn with the channel.

To encourage appointment viewing, it got on-board new and riveting shows like Udaan, Shastri Sisters and Meri Aashiqui Tumse Hi.

Star Plus’ loss was Colors gain as it went about cherry picking most of the prime events:  Sansui Colors Stardust Awards; from the sixth edition of Mirchi Music Awards to Indian Television Academy Awards, to the 13th Indian Telly Awards.

It also announced its association with RFS Entertainment to captivate Indian audiences with Got Talent World Stage Live. Hosted by the badshaah of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan, it is a first-of-its-kind global on-ground extension of Simon Cowell’s Got Talent franchise.

Zee TV: It was a year of back-to-back launches for Zee TV. The channel which takes pride in creating original non-fiction formats has had many firsts to its name.  Be it Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, Dance India Dance (DID) or Antakshari, it has consistently tasted success with its non-fiction originals in a market dominated by internationally-acquired formats like Bigg Boss and Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC).

Zee's first attempt with Cinestars ki Khoj, an acting-based reality show in 2004, did not work out. After almost a decade, this year it was miraculously brought back which in its first edition gave recognition to actors like Ankita Lokhande (Archana Deshmukh on Zee TV's Pavitra Rishta). But once again it did not really set the ratings chart on fire.

After a year of non-fiction shows on weekends, Zee TV decided to give DID a break. With an aim to strengthen its weekend slot with fresh content, the channel got on-board for the first time a superhero trilogy called Maharakshak Aryan simply to engage with the family a lot more. 

The channel felt that an original superhero series was a fresh theme. From its slick production values to innovative visual effects and ingenious cinematography, the show has definitely raised the bar for action thrillers and the fantasy genre on Indian television. To further strengthen its weekend slot, it also launched a light-hearted show titled - Neeli Chhatri Wale.

For Zee TV, India’s first private Hindi GEC channel, launching a number of new shows in a year is nothing new. What is noteworthy is the fact that the channel has produced the top four weekday fiction launches of 2014. That’s quite an achievement.

If one takes a look at the opening week averages of all the fiction launches across GECs for the year, it is very clear from the numbers as to who has ruled the ratings charts.

Jamai Raja leads the pack with 5,488 TVTs, Satrangi Sasural that opened in week 49 with 4,970 TVTs, stands at number two,  Bandhan with 4,366 TVTs and Aur Pyar Ho Gaya with 4,044 TVTs followed at number three and four respectively.

Its other prize property, Kumkum Bhagya, too has done well. After a six-year stint, the channel’s longest running and most popular series - Pavitra Rishta sadly had wound up.

On 23 June, the Zee TV network launched Zindagi to break free from the stereotype framework and melodrama with shows never before seen on the Indian small screen. True to its philosophy and tagline Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, shows like Humsafar, Maat, Kitni Gir hain Baaki Hain were handpicked from across the border.

Life OK: The channel, which is not your run-of-the-mill type catering to the entire family, has played a different game in 2014. This year’s highlights include its first big-ticket Bollywood event, The 20th Annual Life OK Screen Awards. The show registered a whopping 9 million TVTs, three per cent more than the 6.9 million TVTs (ratings provided by Life OK itself) garnered by Colors from its last year’s edition.

Riding high on the success of Screen Awards, the channel decided to get more Bollywood stars on-board and launched Life OK Now Awards which celebrates excellence in the field of film, television and music every month.  The popcorn generation was its target over a successful three-months run.

Its belief was in narrating a variety of stories from different walks of life. It thus launched an action-packed serial - Pukaar - Call for the Hero. With a different perspective, Pukaar had men as the main protagonists. Based on a story with an army background, it saw well-known film producer-director Vipul A Shah making his debut on television. Close to Rs 13 lakh has been spent per episode on production.

Life OK too took the comedy route with Comedy Classes - but the show quickly fizzled out.

Not only did big film producers make their way to the network, but the channel attracted a lot of film celebrities too. To make the content line-up bolder and stronger, it got an action reality series – Dare 2 Dance with celebrity Akshay Kumar as its host.

On the fiction front, viewers saw gorgeous actress Sonali Bendre making her debut on television with the series christened – Ajeeb Daastan Hai Yeh. Actress Bhagyashree too made her debut on television with a gutsy series – Laut Aao Trisha.

Moreover, after a successful three-year run, the channel’s flagship property Mahadev saw its shutters come down and this paved the way for a new show Mahakumbh- Ek Rahasya, EkKahani. The channel’s crime properties - Savdhaan India and Shapath continued to fly high on the ratings chart.

Sab TV: This family channel from the Multi Screen Media (MSM) stable, can be credited for the rise in the comedy genre with its popular shows Tarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah, Lapataganj and Chidiya Ghar, by experimenting with a new format based on live audience participation titled Tu Mere Agal Bagal Hai.

The sitcom was like no other. The cast acted in front of a live audience which the channel believed was the USP of the show. Launched as a daily soap, it was penned as a finite one. Again, a first of its kind, the channel launched India’s only alien comedy TV serial - Badi Door Se Aaye Hai.

Tarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah continues to win the hearts of many and is the chart leader. Not only that, but the team was also invited by our country’s PM Narendra Modi to help him with Swachh Bharat Abhiyan campaign.

F.I.R continued to be very gripping. In between for a month (July – August), the show tried a stint of stand-up comedy with live audience but failed to capture viewers.

Sony Entertainment Television (SET): It was a year of struggle for Sony and it ended the year at the bottom rung of the TAM TV ratings ladder. This despite the fact that it experimented with concepts, shows, formats and even programme and marketing spends.

The channel’s hopes were riding high on Amitabh Bachchan's fiction debut Yudh, but the dark content was unpalatable. The 20-episode drama launched in July dashed all hopes as it only made around 1,199 TVTs in its opening week. The buzz generated around Big B failed to translate into ratings.

What clicked this year was its only famous property - Kaun Banega Crorepati 8, giving some respectable numbers to the channel to barely survive. This time around, it moved out of its comfort zone, set in Film City with the launch and mid-season episode being shot like events in Surat and Raipur with live audiences. It also went on a big bang 360 degree promotional exercise with 100 on-ground events. The channel spent an outrageous 30 per cent of the total budget on marketing.

Sony is pinning its hopes high on yet another launch, another high-investment property - Box Cricket League (BCL), a sports reality show. Played with a soft ball and filmed in a studio it will have 19 matches with around 120 celebrities playing the game.

Fiction turned out to be a near disaster for the channel. Its biggest fiction launch of the year – Itna Karo Na Mujhe Pyaar with Ronit Roy, did not do as well as it was expected. But both, Balaji Telefilms, the producer and the channel’s management think it will build on its viewers over time.

Other fiction series like Humsafars, Hum Hai Na and Tum Aise Hi Rehna have only a glimmer of hope. The only silver linings are the channel’s crime and investigation properties - CID, Crime Patrol and Adalat and the historical Maharana Pratap.

MSM launched a new channel - Sony Pal on 1 September aimed at women and housewives with stories about the fairer sex and family. With the ‘Yeh Pal Hamara Hai’ tagline, it was meant to compliment its sister channels Sony Entertainment and Sab. It launched with nine new shows and Juhi Chawla as its face. Pal like the network’s other GEC initiatives did not make much headway with viewers.

As the year came to a close, another big experiment saw the light of day with the launch of Epic TV. After a wait of almost a year or more. Headed by former Disney executive Mahesh Samat, Epic is India's first genre-specific Hindi entertainment channel.

Covering genres ranging from action, drama, comedy to narrative non-fiction, it seeks to celebrate India's heritage by creating unique and original content within Indian history, folklore and mythology, using a contemporary story-telling format.

Discovery Communications India too entered the Hindi enertianment space, with the launch of its Investigation Discovery (ID) channel.

Hopefully, India’s demanding TV viewers will lap it up. And hopefully, India’s GEC executives will continue to experiment in 2015 and possibly continue with their efforts to redefine India TV audience’s entertainment tastes.

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