Television is no doubt a powerhouse medium in India. But it’s also widely accepted that the quality of content of the average Indian television drama isn’t exactly path breaking. Our TV shows are known far more for their ‘zoom-in-sound-effects’ and often ridiculous plot lines, than they are for the quality of writing or variety of stories.
The use of television as a platform for quality content is a massive opportunity waiting to be tapped into and for some reason, TV studios have barely scratched the surface. We are a nation hungry for engaging shows, with a massive television audience, who are offered poor quality and largely repetitive, regressive attacks on the senses which are classed as TV shows. At best there are shows with an engaging initial premise which fizzle out rapidly. As is the case with most entertainment industries in India, demand just isn’t meeting supply – what people want to watch and what is being provided is severely out of sync.
There are a number of reasons for this mismatch between the kind of shows people are hungry for and what is being put out by television studios. The most significant reason here is a fundamental lack of understanding of audiences by the decision makers of television. There are innumerable examples of people pitching smart and relevant ideas to the head honchos of TV, and those very ideas being rejected with reasons like ‘Indian audiences aren’t intelligent enough to understand this and it needs to be dumbed down’. This is both ignorant as much as it is just plain untrue, not to mention a vast underestimation of audiences. The current state of Indian TV is similar to if all movies were commercial potboilers, with bad writing, silly stories and fully aimed at commercial benefit. The fact that they get large audiences is solely because they are catering to their largest demographic of family audiences, and aren’t bothered at the sections of the audience their alienating.
Then there is the fear of the decision makers to take risks and god forbid, try something new. The minimal innovation and risk taking that does happen is seen in other types of shows, such as Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate and more recently AIB’s On Air with AIB, rather than in the fiction space. The result is significant chunks of the audience now look to alternate sources for engaging content, largely to the west, to American TV shows. The sheer quality and variety of the US TV market is undeniable, where there is no attempt whatsoever to ‘dumb down’ shows for the audience.
The Hollywood Story
If we stop and take a closer look at the quality of content coming out of American television, and the role and impact of television in the west, you will see that the last few years, has seen a fundamental move away from movies being the powerhouse in Hollywood. The focus has very much shifted instead to television, and there are a number of curious causes and consequences of this. Traditionally movies reigned supreme, but in today’s time, if one was to look for the biggest stars, the most popular content and highest quality writing, they would all be found on TV. Countless examples include House MD, Breaking Bad, How I Met Your Mother, House Of Cards and Game of Thrones to name a few.
At the same time, the state of movies in Hollywood has shifted away from originality to largely remakes, reboots, sequels and adaptations. If one tries to remember the last Hollywood movie that was raved about and much talked about, and now compare that to how much you’ve heard talk of a Breaking Bad, a House of Cards or a Game of Thrones, and you can see the comparison. The audience depends far more on TV to meet their content needs, and it’s much more about ‘What shows are you watching these days?’, rather than ‘What’s the last good movie you watched?’. In fact in Hollywood, a whole host of your favourite movies are being rebooted as TV shows!
A contributing reason for this is the production values of television have increased vastly in the last few years, further broadening the variety of shows that are made for TV. This is why an Arrow or Flash work well on the small screen, and partly why Game of Thrones has achieved the status it has. The production values, be it effects or otherwise are near on par with movies for the most part.
This shift can also be seen in the definition of stars in Hollywood. Big Hollywood stars are making the shift to television partly because of the undeniable quality of projects they are offered. Examples here include Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson in True Detective, as well as Halle Berry, the late Robin Williams, Ashton Kutcher and countless more. Ironically stars are now being born on TV, Kit Harrington (John Snow) and Brian Cranston (Walter White) are massive stars forged on TV, and movie studios then run after them to capitalise on their TV stardom rather than the other way around.
To put things in perspective, imagine a movie production house running after an Indian soap star to bank on his fan following for their movie. It’s difficult, if not impossible to imagine! In contrast if we examine our Bollywood movie stars today, their role on TV is very much star focused as opposed to acting focused, as they tend to play themselves, host reality shows etc. However they don’t do TV projects as such barring a number of recent examples, few in number.
One key aspect here is that of choice, in the west there is no shortage of variety of shows or diversity in content. The number of new shows commissioned, and pilots aired every year is unheard of! As an audience of American TV, you’re spoiled for choice and more often than not you just can’t keep up with all the shows people say ‘you just have to watch’. There is no shortage of engaging stories and quality shows across genres. TV studios in the US are hungry to find the next big thing whereas here we seem to be stuck making more of the same.
Perhaps more ironically, our Bollywood stars are being given significant opportunities overseas on Western TV shows. This is a strong testament to the lack of roles and good stories on our TV screens. The examples as of date include Irrfan Khan in the much acclaimed In Treatment , Anil Kapoor in the American 24, Nimrat Kaur in Homeland and the most recent and arguably most important example, Priyanka Chopra being given not only a role but the lead in Quantico.
The popularity of western TV shows in India reinforces the point that we are a nation which is ready to accept new, smarter, more evolved content and this is a need which is neither met nor acknowledged by Indian television shows today. The issue isn’t just about better quality television shows but it’s also very much a commercial issue. Assuming TV studios are only being driven by commercial benefit, what they need to understand is that there is a significant commercial opportunity here.
The Bollywood Example
To understand the demand for new, different, and thought-provoking content one doesn’t need to look further than our very own movie industry. Bollywood is experiencing a time of significant change, not least of which is that audiences are accepting different kinds of cinema. The last 5 years has seen an evolution in the movie industry, with films becoming increasingly more content driven. More edgy and unique cinema is being made and more than anything, these new films are proving to be commercial successes. The year 2015 has been the greatest example of this, with films like NH10, Badlapur, Piku, Dum Lagake Haisha and Tanu Weds Manu Returns, all doing well at the box office. The audience is accepting these in a big way, and this is giving more courage to filmmakers and production houses to try different things and put the story and script at the heart of the movie, rather than the stars. Yash Raj Films (YRF) is a fine example of a studio that has backed films such as Dum Lageke Haisha and more recently Titli, as YRF head Aditya Chopra has openly said that he believes that the niche cinema of today is the commercial cinema of tomorrow.
This in itself should be a big sign to the Indian TV decision makers that your audience is not what you think, and they are enjoying different kinds of cinema and the same needs to be done on television.
The Digital Era
A significant consequence of the lack of engaging shows on television, coupled with the digital age we live in, has led to a whole new platform, which is that of digital content. Web-based shows and the content mammoth that is YouTube has led to a whole number of online shows which people are increasingly engaging with as an alternative to TV.
At present it strongly looks like the best shows we see in the coming years will be on the web rather than on TV, and this is a movement that has already very much begun.
A fine example of this is The Viral Fever or ‘TVF’, a company founded in 2010 by Arunabh Kumar, as a result of Kumar’s belief that there was no content on TV available that was aimed at the youth of India. The majority of TV was unapologetically aimed at what is known as the ‘aunty audience’ and so the youth would largely look to the west. As a result Kumar approached several TV studios with a view to have an Indian version of a show like How I Met Your Mother, or a similar sitcom, however made for Indian audiences. Kumar was famously shot down with all the aforementioned logic that Indian audiences are mentally not capable of following such shows and it wouldn’t work. The ignorance of the TV decision makers is startling given that some of the most popular shows on Indian TV in the last decade have included Full House, Friends and How I Met Your Mother. Kumar subsequently launched TVF, his own production house, making shows on YouTube aimed at the youth of India. TVF’s first web series Permanent Roommates, which was a humorous take on live in relationships in India, subsequently went on to become the most watched web series in the world. TVF was in some ways Kumar’s efforts to prove the TV studios wrong and his success till date more than proves that. Following this, they launched TVF Pitchers, about a group of engineers quit their jobs to start a start-up. TVF currently have just over a million subscribers and growing.
TVF’s latest venture sees them taking things into their own hands to a further extent by launching TVF Play, a website which hosts all of their original content and additional popular Indian shows. This positions the company even more toward being a viable alternative to mainstream television. This is further heightened by the recent launch of Netflix India which is admittedly not as popular as its US counterpart, but its growing its content surely and steadily and could soon catch up.
The numbers of views and subscribers should be a big sign to studios about the commercial aspect of just how many people are tuning into these shows. A further example of this is Y films, the youth aimed, digital arm of Yash Raj Films which has started several web series including A Man’s World and the more recent Bang Baaja Baraat. These all feature strong casts, and well thought out scripts with new and unique ideas.
The failure of Indian TV makers to provide enriching and entertaining shows has many times been typecast as a youth problem. This issue has been twisted to say that the Indian TV is still in the past and the issue here is it fails to cater to the sensibilities of the youth today, however in this writer’s opinion it is purely and simply a quality problem. This is an issue faced by the youth as any other generation.
However in an ideal era of Indian television which features high-quality writing and good shows, there is an issue around language. We are a nation of a whole host of different languages, and in terms of TV, shows are largely split by English and Hindi. There would be a consideration of appealing to both demographics, those who prefer Hindi shows and those who watch largely English shows. The hope would be that TV shows would cater to both languages, however Hindi is assumed to be the language that caters to the masses. Shows like Aamir Khan’s Satyamev Jayate and more recently On Air with AIB, actually record shows in both Hindi and English to address this very issue. Yet there is a point here around the power of content. Truly engaging shows can transcend issues of language if you give people something really worthwhile to watch. The recent short film Ahalya, made by Sujoy Ghosh, is fine example of this. The gripping short film went instantly viral even though the entire film was shot in Bengali, with subtitles. In the end, language can be overcome, it is the quality of the content that should be made priority, and regardless of factors such as language, the show will find an audience.
Signs of hope
Yet all is not lost in the fight for a TV revolution to bring good shows to our screens. There have been some very conscious efforts in the last few years to produce content driven shows with serious potential. Some haven’t proved successful such as Amitabh Bachchan’s Yuva which unfortunately didn’t prove to be a success, but this was a very clear attempt to bring TV into focus and that can’t be ignored. Showrunners should not be deterred by its lack of success but instead take from its example and keep striving. A more recent and perhaps the most successful and relevant example is Anil Kapoor’s Indian adaptation of 24. Hailed as a revolution in Indian television, the show features Anil Kapoor in the lead with a strong star cast and a truly gripping and engaging story line. This is very much a success story, and it does help to have a Bollywood star at the helm to bring attention to it. There is talk of him now trying to do the same with an Indian adaptation of Modern Family which we hope will be as successful as it sounds, as that type of awkward comedy has never been attempted on our TV screens.
TV decision makers need to put more focus on the quality and diversity of shows being aired and learn from the example of American TV studios who are putting their bets on exploring new and different territories whereas we are stuck producing more of the same. A similar lesson must be learnt from the fascinating change taking place in our movie industry which is putting content at its core. Those who used to look down at Bollywood cinema and write it off must swallow their words considering the kinds of movies we are marking today. We must strive to do the same with our television shows.
At the end of the day, audiences dont know what they want, and the masses are too accepting of sub par content and that wont last, and studios need to adapt and fast. The sad reality is in today’s world you dont need quality to appeal to the masses, being better is actually a choice, but one that I’m willing to bet will really pay off.
By doing this TV studios will benefit be it via reputation or commercial benefit, and more than that the love and respect of an audience which is what they lack severely today. They are vastly underestimating their audience, and slowly losing their market to overseas or digital content. They need to rise above the typecasting and repetition. It will be a creatively enriching decision as much as a commercial one.