The making of ‘Junior’ stars

It was a countdown that began in the year 2004. Armed with a huge promotional blitz, Sony Entertainment Television (SET) launched its ‘big one’: an ambitious project that threatened to challenge the viewing habits of the telly loyals.

Be it a lack of hit since Bade Achhe Lagte Hain, or the obvious threat posed by the ‘youth or women oriented’ focus of several other general entertainment channels (GECs), SET has a huge stake with the desi version of FremantleMedia’s Pop Idol.

The mega budget Indian Idol is SET’s bid to fortify its youth viewer base. Multi Screen Media (MSM) calls this talent hunt a power brand created by Sony in the past 15 years, which stands above a few other powerful brands created by the channel including CID, Aahat, Boogie Woogie among others.

Indian Idol so far has produced six successful seasons. Worried of the show reaching a fatigue level, the channel introduced a sub-franchise targeting kids with Indian Idol Junior in 2013. On the back of a successful first season, Sony has come back with the second edition this year.

Indian Idol Junior2 currently showcasing the audition round, will see the ‘juniors’ paying tribute to the maestros of Indian music at the season’s grand launch. What’s more, the talent quotient has gone a notch higher with the inclusion of actor Sonakshi Sinha as one of the judges.

A look at the journey

While all looks glamorous when one watches the show on TV, producing half an hour to one hour of reality show is no child’s play.

At any given time, more than 100-200 people work to make a reality show. The production team and the crew are as important as the talent and really make the show happen. When a fiction show is penned, one has to simply write all the relevant beats to that week’s tale, but with reality programmes, things are a bit different.

Let’s take a look at all the madness that goes backstage while making a show like Indian Idol Junior2.

For FremantleMedia India managing director Anupama Mandloi the blueprint of these formats is simple, uncomplicated, clean and universally adaptable. A reality show like Indian Idol while is relevant to any culture across the globe, it also has the ability to absorb the local DNA, thus becoming a true representation of the region they are produced in.

“The audience enjoys the predictability of the journey, the range of talent, as well as the fresh and exclusive energy each season brings. Characters and storytelling define any good show. These shows are all about creating strong, memorable, aspirational and yet relatable characters whose journey and endgame is contained within a finite number of weeks,” she explains.

Considering the basic blueprint remains the same, making any new edition look fresh is the biggest challenge. “We look at various elements: right from the talent to choosing areas for getting fresh, new voices to the panel of judges depicting their camaraderie and journey through the show. We also look at scheduling, how to differentiate various phases of the show as well as the larger story that we want to convey through the programme. These shows are all representative of current times and there is a definite change in narrative that comes through the contestants on the show,” Mandloi explains.

She believes that when they first started the journey of reality shows, it gave audiences a sense of opportunity, scale and transformation. Over the years, it has reflected the pathos of underprivileged lives, their acceptance of destiny and the rooted middle class values.

But, the narrative now is of achievers, children wanting the best and working towards it as well as a growing sense of community through technology. “It is about expecting the best and taking destiny into their hands. These shows are fascinating in what they throw up as you gather stories from across India,” she adds.

Content Creation

For starters, broader and thematic links for hosts is written before hand after a lot of internal discussions. A large part of the script is written on the ground based on situations as they unfold. As per Mandloi, this year the show witnessed the turnout of an unprecedented number of twins.

She further goes on to say that the writers do not write scripts for judges because that never works. “The judges are articulate and capable of phrasing their thoughts. Scripting for the judges or the kids would make the show fake and we have a fairly purist approach to this aspect of the show. The viewers can tell if a show is over produced,” she asserts.

There is only one writer who works closely with the creative director, associate creative director and the anchor director. It is all about the brief and how the writer links it with existing social norms and then how he wants the show to resonate. “The idea is to give the show consistency and a sense of purpose. Be it celebration, search, revelation, wish fulfillment,” she explains.

There was no extensive research for this season, says Mandloi.  But, with a successful first edition, the makers were keen to establish the junior brand with the second season.

“This season is a celebration of talent rather than a discovery and that is probably what is showing up through all interactions. There was a reflection on elements that worked and those that could have been better and we moved forward with those learnings in place. The top 13 is a true reflection of India from north, south, east and west. The top 13 is a wide range of voices as well as personalities and the talent is fresh and memorable,” she reasons.

Reality shows are exhausting & relentless

According to Mandloi, Indian Idol Junior took almost nine intense months of work and the crew usually faces a vacuum once the show gets over. “These shows are exhausting as they are relentless and require dedicated commitment from the team. At FremantleMedia, we are very careful to work with the best in the industry. They take pride in their work and that is always reflected in the quality of the show.”

For IIJ, the makers had a one year window to find the talent and according to Mandloi that is clearly coming across in the show.

It was a three months journey for the talent hunt to finally complete the auditions. While a number of children are called through an established network of music schools, institutions and gharaanas, there is also an open audition for which people register and audition.

Since the show deals with kids, the makers ensure that children come with guardians. Food and water is provided and while the wait can be long, it does not allow entries after 5 pm. Moreover, the crew has contestant managers and their teams as well as a large ground team that helps address any issues that may crop up.

“We are very careful with children. As far as possible we do try and ensure that the children are treated gently and with care. The entire team is briefed and prepped before the unit hits the road,” she says.

How do the makers ensure a good turnout for auditions? Says Mandloi, “We can’t really control this beyond a point. In some cities the turnout is fabulous and in some it is sometimes underwhelming but for us the focus is not on the volume as much as it is on the talent. We make sure that a fair opportunity is provided to all those who are present.”

According to Mandloi, she has been very fortunate with her channel interactions. “There is great faith in the team as well as belief in the format. There is a lot of creative freedom for this reason and the show is eventually a collaboration of creative ideas and execution.”

Live, Camera & Action

The show began the actual shoot approximately three months before going on-air.

The audition phase is an accumulation of shoot footage of over two months which is then sifted through and assembled into episodes. “It is a tough process though now we have very good teams that have understood the process and are very skilled at connecting the dots,” she opines.

The theatre phase is shot over three days. The concert episodes are shot every Sunday with a live result episode.

One single episode takes anywhere from three weeks to five hours depending on the nature of the episode. The audition episodes take the longest as there is hours and hours of footage that needs to be culled, assembled and structured into a narrative. The live result takes approximately five hours and the concert episodes take close to three days.

For all these, the production house has a large set-up with multiple machines and large post teams. A very tight core team drives the show. It hires the technical, creative as well as production teams on project basis. For a show of this size it is usually around 200 people on ground.

To manage the crowd and ensure enough eyeballs in the studio, a large part of the crowd is sourced through audience co-coordinators. Moreover, there is a floor manager and his team that takes care of audience management as well as all the ground show flow.

Every season needs to focus on bringing together fresh, exquisite talent that people align themselves with. This alignment dictates how they feel about the judge panel and the judges' personal graphs within the show.

For IIJ season2, judges like Vishal Dadlani, Shalmali Kholgade and Salim Merchant were selected for their credibility, their ease with children, ability to connect with viewers, personality and a very strong sense of who they are as opposed to who they are trying to project.

Host Hussain Kuwajerwala and co-host Asha Negi were selected for their ability to be spontaneous, charming as well as the ability to connect with kids and viewers.

This season the makers have conceived a set that is unlike any so far in its true 360 degree design. It’s intimate, glamorous and yet very fresh. A wireless cam does a 360 degree revolution around the centre stage. The families, contestants, audience and judges are all seated around the circular stage so that the contestant feels connected to all.

The contestant performs in a central arena surrounded by graphics and the live band fills the set with its magic. IIJ 2 is being shot with 15 cameras.

Reality shows costs a bomb

One cannot deny the fact that reality shows are expensive. The production house is allocated with a budget and it has to work under those tight budgets.

A media planner believes that though they are high budget shows, it is not in the cost of content. “The focus is to make sets bigger and shiny with more lights.  But, that is not what attracts the audience anyways.”

According to a planner, it is the celebrity quotient that increases the cost of production.  “If you are working on a budget, you usually have to figure out what level of celebrity you can afford and that decides the costing. While the scale of the show is controllable, it is the demand for a particular celebrity which takes the cost high,” adds the planner.

The production cost per episode of IIJ season 2 is somewhere between Rs 30-35 lakh.

Sony, which currently is at the sixth position at the television ratings chart, has high hopes from this season of Indian Idol Junior. While the stage is set for the star performers, whether it will open up the stars for the channel is yet to be seen.   

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