2001-2010: Small screen touched lives in a big way

The decade seems to have whizzed by. It almost seems like yesterday when the country‘s first television crorepati took home his Rs 1 crore cheque for excelling in KBC (Kaun Banega Crorepati) from its suave and sophisticated host Amitabh Bachchan.

But  for television the past 10 years have packed in a lot of punch and gut-wrenching change. I will try and examine what are the 10 major trends that have characterised the past television decade. The list is not comprehensive and I am sure there are many other highlights others may want to add; but this is my effort.

From competition to super competition: In the past decade, even a back-of-the-envelope calculation tells us that around 300-400 new channels have been launched, in almost every genre: news, religion, regional language, general entertainment channels (GECs), Hindi GECs, specialised city specific channels, youth channels, movie channels, alternate movie channels- you name it and you have it. Others are waiting to be launched: luxury channels, golf channels, cookery channels, and what have you.

Concurrently, the advertising and subscription costs have not gone up in proportion. So channel managements have to innovate to be profitable, even as the costs have been rising. People retention is a major challenge for almost every player in the television space, because of the paucity of professionals. Because of the competition and the fact that programming executives are risk averse, most of the channels for a large part - have over the past decade - been following a single strategy: if one type of programme works well on a channel or in a network, the others follow and develop a similar one. Net result is that all the television channels almost look the same because of similarity of content. For most of them therefore, there is a battle on the ground level to increase their visibility and this has led to an escalation in distribution costs in terms of carriage and placement.

The changing face of drama and soaps: At the beginning of the decade, were the saas bahu sagas on Star Plus, which focused on the interaction and travails of women in extended wealthy ethnic families. Shows like Kyuunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki, Kasauti Zindagi Kay, Kahin To Hoga, ran for what seemed like ever and retaining their audiences despite. You had a rare CID, Astitva and Jassi Jaisi Koi Nahin which deviated from the beaten path. You also had comedies such as Kichdhi, Baa Bahu aur Baby, Office Office which sparkled and added to the audiences‘ mirth.

Then with the arrival of Colors the focus shifted to social issue based rural shows - aka as social dramas - like Balika Vadhu, Na Aane is des… Laado and Uttaran. Almost every channel followed with similar shows. While Zee had Agle Janam Mohe..., Imagine TV came up with Devi, among many other programmes of similar ilk.

Themes such as child marriage, female foeticide, women trafficking, the caste system, feudalism, farmers‘ suicide and superstition formed the thread of many a programme.

Of course, comedies received a big boost thanks to Sab TV a channel from the Sony Entertainment Network which has a surfeit of comedies, and some comedy shows on Sony.

The emergence of reality TV: Reality TV roared into the forefront in the past decade. The nation watched inmates in a house being cooped together in a home for around three months and their reactions to each other in that closed environment in Bigg Boss in its seasons. Celebrities and their tolerance to extreme tasks were tested in Khatron Ke Khiladi. Then, youth went around on a predefined route on bikes in MTV‘s Roadies. From the UTV stable emerged a show that shook the nation with its focus on infidelity in the form of Bindass‘ Emotional Atyachaar. Partners were discovered on TV and marriage took place on shows like Rakhi Ka Swaywamvar and Rahul Dulhaniya Le Jayega. Individuals bared their most hidden secrets to Rajiv Khandelwal in the popular Sach Ka Saamna. Past life regression was explored in Raaz Pichle Janam Ka. Talent hunts such as Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, Indian Idol, Nach Baliye, Jhalak Dikhla Ja, Dance India Dance added oodles of reality punch to enthrall Indian viewers.

The debate over regulation: In the midst of all this, both industry and government continued to dither over regulation.

Time and again, government raised an alarm that content was going out of hand in both the news and general entertainment spaces. News took the route of sensationalising and glorifying almost everything and tabloid television became the norm.

News excesses became glaringly evident in the case of the coverage of the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.The news industry responded by setting up the News Broadcasters‘ Association, the Broadcast Editors‘ Association, a code of ethics and programming, and also set up structures which allowed viewers to resort to a complain mechanism in case they felt that news was going beyond its brief.

On  the general entertainment side, an attempt is being made to set up a programming code and ways of compliance to it by the Indian Broadcasters‘ Foundation. While there were moves afoot on the content front, the government pussyfooted its way into regulation on the distribution front.

In the early part of the decade it mandated the spread of set-top boxes and conditional access systems as part of its digitalisation plans, but then it took no decision to further it to another 55 cities or monitor and further its spread in the four metros where it had ordered the cable operators to digitize. It restricted broadcasters from charging more than Rs 5 per channel to subscribers and hence kept the cable TV subscription prices for viewers in check.

Even as the decade was towards its last leg, there was no clarity on whether selfregulation was what the industry would be governed by or was it co-regulation.

The emergence of production houses: The demand for content led to the emergence of new production powerhouses. UTV Television, Synergy (now Big Synergy), Sagar Arts, Cinevistaas, Miditech, Creative Eye, Siddhant, DJs, Contiloe, Optymystix and Balaji Telefilms were the leaders at the start of the decade. The end of the decade had seen multinationals and more new Indian production houses adding to that list. Fremantle Media, Endemol, Zodiak (through SOL) belonged to the international list and was behind some of the real big productions. Amongst the newer indigenous ones who had forayed and made their mark included Directors Kut, Sphere Origin, Shakuntalam Telefilms, Walkwater Media, The Right Picture, Wizcraft, Cineyug, Playmate etc.

At the same time, producers were forced to put their houses in order with the associations striking to raise their wages, limited hours of working, and more structured production cycles.

The explosion in new talent: Talent costs spiralled out of reach as experienced actors started charging sky-high rates even as film actors, directors, producers hopped on to the television bandwagon. Producing cost-effectively meant that new talents had to be scouted and cast at lower rates. Hence, producers and channels worked closely with casting directors to find new faces, most of whom had next-door looks. Younger people were cast from colleges, from street corners and they went on to become big names.

Sport as a grand television spectacle: Cheerleaders, belles and whistles, the involvement of filmstars in teams, the decade saw sports becoming a television spectacle like nothing else. Sports - read cricket - television was serious business in the seventies, eighties and even the nineties and meant for serious students of the game. But in an effort to broadbase the sport and make it appealing to women, female commentators were brought in whose clothes made the headlines.

Then came the IPL 20-20 form of the sport which allowed industrialists and the Bollywood brigade to own teams in a quick-bite format of cricket. Big doses of entertainment were thrown in with lots of pomp, loud music, bands and scantilyclad girls waving from the sidelines, owner-actors and industrialists egging on their teams. And the nation took to it like no other form of entertainment.

Meeting the needs of region-specific audiences: Thanks to its many languages, India is not an easy market, especially for the media owners. The decade saw a ballooning of regional language television with broadcast networks adding channels with content catering to local audiences of the state. The south has the Sun Network as the leader with languages catering to all the southern language states. Amongst the national players, Zee was a pioneer in this and today runs general entertainment television channels in Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada, Bengali, among others. The other networks are not far behind with Star, Sony, and even Viacom18 moving aggressively into the language space.

The proliferation of news: News burgeoned through the decade with specialised general news channels, city-specific channels, business news channels and even entertainment news channels being launched. And the spate of news channels was not just in the national language, they proliferated in regional languages too.

Close to 1,200 hours a  to 1,200 hours a day of news is churned out daily by the news channels. According to an estimate, around 600 channels have been licensed to uplink from India. Of this, a majority of the applications were for channels in the news space. So much has been the rush in the news television space that even a state such as Andhra Pradesh has about 15-16 news channels in Telugu.

Along with channels news anchors have also emerged as stars of sorts. At times, they give their actor kin a run for celebritydom, having notched up huge fan followings for themselves.

New distribution platforms: First, there was only Doordarshan. Then came cable TV in the nineties. The first decade of the new millennium has been characterised by the emergence of digital TV, mainly DTH TV homes. Of the 150 odd million TV homes, around 110 million have either a cable TV or DTH connection. Six platforms waging a cutthroat battle have resulted in extremely low subscriber costs with fees being as low as Rs 150. Cable TV has also been forced to keep its prices extremely low because of the competition from DTH. On the horizon are newer modes of broadcasting such as HDTV, IPTV and streaming of content over wireless broadband. Clearly, for customers there is a harvest of plenty in store.

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