MUMBAI: Covid2019 was undoubtedly the biggest story of 2020, but it also gave new life to several well-loved stories of the past – more precisely, vintage TV shows. As productions came to a halt with the announcement of lockdowns, television broadcasters had to quickly come up with ways to fill up their time slots. As well as find ways to keep those at home engaged enough so as to not step out and possibly expose themselves to the novel Coronavirus.
With no fresh episodes being churned out, successful TV shows went off air. TV programming executives started going through their back catalogue deciding what series and programmes to put on air once again. Doordarshan boss Shashi Shekhar Vempati took the high ground and made some audacious bets. He brought back the classics of the eighties – Ramanand Sagar's Ramayan and BR Chopra's Mahabharat. The difference: unlike in the past when the episodes aired on Sunday mornings, Vempati put the two mythologicals on air every evening and in the afternoons. His decision worked like a charm.
The Indian public, fearful of the havoc that Covid was wreaking on all and sundry, found solace in the two shows. The viewers swelled into millions and it seemed like all of India had connected with the story of a king and his exile and the victory of good over evil, and that of five brothers who fight adversity from their own family, go into exile only to come back and regain their rightful kingdom.
Doordarshan regained its lost glory; after nearly three decades of ceding ground to cable TV, it became India's most-watched channel again.
In its heyday, the streets would be empty during showtime, and people formed queues outside shops to watch their favourite show on the pubcaster. Some people would even garland their TV sets in awe. In fact, the actors playing Ram and Sita would often be treated like gods in public. The tables turned with the launch of satellite television in the mid-90s, and the explosive growth of private channels that followed.
But bringing back Ramayan and other old favourites like Shaktiman and Buniyaad – created when DD monopolised TV broadcasting – forged an inexplicable and instantaneous connection with audiences. BARC has attributed the telecast of Ramayan and Mahabharat as the reason for DD’s climb to the top of the ratings chart.
Not only did Doordarshan succeed in chalking up record viewership, but it also generated online chatter – from memes to nostalgia posts from viewers. For many, it was a trip down memory lane.
During an interaction, BARC India CEO Sunil Lulla remarked, “[Repeat telecasts of] Ramayan and Mahabharat, in my view, is a stellar move. It’s a nostalgia moment for people who are born in the 80’s. Because the entire family is sitting together with elders at home, it was the best thing to watch on TV. But shockingly, younger audiences were also watching the show. More of the urban audience, rather than rural, tuned in.”
The buzz around these shows has led to an increased brand recall for Doordarshan. India’s iconic dairy brand Amul also went retro and re-released its old advertisements on the channel.
According to SEMrush (an online visibility management platform), ‘Ramayan’ became India's most searched term in the entertainment category in April 2020.
Nielsen and BARC had reported that in the initial weeks of reruns, Ramayan episodes got 42.6 million tune-ins and garnered 6.9 billion viewing minutes on average.
On 17 April, Prasar Bharati (the parent body of DD and All India Radio) announced in a tweet that Ramayan was the highest-watched entertainment programme globally, recording a viewership of 77 million. Even though the show attracted many advertisers, it irked viewers who wanted uninterrupted content. Some, bizarrely, even accused Doordarshan of streaming the show from a Moser Baer DVD.
Apologies for this inane tweet. But Doordarshan, India's National broadcaster, is streaming Ramayana from a Moser Baer DVD. Along with the watermark. pic.twitter.com/jghqHJCLwd
— Neha Dixit (@nehadixit123) April 11, 2020
Certain sections of the public appealed to the government to curb the TV spots. In response, Vempati in a tweet said, "Would request everyone's patience with the advertisements. Brands reaching out to a large audience spurs consumption and economic activity at this critical juncture. Also, every rupee of commercial revenue to DD is a rupee of taxpayer money saved."
Feedback noted. However would request everyone's patience with the advertisements. Brands reaching out to a large audience spurs consumption and economic activity at this critical juncture. Also every rupee of commercial revenue to DD is a rupee of tax payer money saved. https://t.co/ocLqiI5cGj
— Shashi S (@shashidigital) April 11, 2020
When I&B minister Prakash Javadekar posted a photo of himself watching Ramayan reruns during the lockdown, he was immediately panned for his “let them eat cake” moment while millions were struggling to make ends meet.
But in the weeks that followed, public sentiment changed. Following the runaway success of the two shows, the state broadcaster went beyond mythological shows and tapped into its programming archive. Buniyaad, Byomkesh Bakshi, Gora, Circus (starring a baby-faced Shah Rukh Khan), Shrikant (starring the late actor Irrfan Khan), Shaktimaan, Dekh Bhai Dekh, Shrimaan Shrimati, The Jungle Book, and more were back on telly - and viewers were hooked.
Other broadcast networks followed suit. Viacom18-owned Hindi GEC Colors brought back shows such as Balika Vadhu, Jai Shri Krishna, Mahakali, Ram Siya Ke Luv Kush, Dance Deewane, Bigg Boss, Comedy Nights with Kapil, Sidharth Shukla-Rashami Desai-starrer love story Dil Se Dil Tak and comedy series Belan Wali Bahu.
Zee TV played reruns of Jamai Raja, Pavitra Rishta, Jodha Akbar, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Li’l Champs 2017 and Hum Paanch, Kumkum Bhagya, Kundali Bhagya, Ram Kapoor's Kasam Se, and Brahmarakshas.
The classic sitcom Office Office was being broadcast on Sony SAB and Star Plus’ Mahabharat and Siya Ke Ram were back on TV too.
Star Sports started showing historic cricket matches like India’s 2011 World Cup win, India vs Pakistan series, previous editions of the IPL, Formula 1 races, football and kabbadi.
The audience's retro romance continued for three months. Almost every channel saw spikes in viewership; sadly, advertisers stayed away as overall economic and consumer sentiment had sunk to a new low.
Came end July and governments gave the go-ahead to productions to start again under strict operating procedures. Shoots commenced and viewers rejoiced that fresh programming was back. However, none regretted the joy that reruns gave them for the three months of the initial period of the lockdown.