In these times of intense audience fragmentation and shifting loyalties, there are several serials on Hindi general entertainment channels that have crossed the 1000-episode milestone. What explains their non-stop run? Have creative directors run out of saleable story ideas or do these shows still have loyalists among viewers and advertisers?
It's the season of 1000 episodes on Indian television. In the last few months, several serials on Hindi general entertainment channels (GEC) have crossed the 1000-episode mark. Daily serial Uttaran which went on air on December 1, 2008 on Hindi GEC Colors completed 1000 episodes this November after a couple of generational leaps and umpteenth twists and turns in the storyline which kept the audience hooked. Only a few months earlier, Colors' flagship show Balika Vadhu too had breached the 1000-episode milestone. Again, comedy serial Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah completed 1000 episodes on Hindi GEC SAB TV last month. In October, Star Plus's long running daily serial Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai too joined the 1000-episode club. Zee TV's Pavitra Rishta too seems to be on the same track with more than 900 episodes of this Balaji Telefilms creation having been already aired.
To be sure, the overall number of 1000-episode shows still remains small compared to that of the pre-2008 era when serials such as Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, Kahaani Ghar Ghar Kii, Kasautii Zindagii Kay, Kkusum, Kumkum - Ek Pyara Sa Bandhan, Woh Rehne Waali Mehlon Ki, Bhabhi and Baa Bahoo Aur Baby all made it to the 1000-episode club. That was the time when the viewer followed her serial religiously, everything that happened in a serial made a difference in the life of a viewer and fashion trends were dictated by what the protagonists in these serials wore. But today when audience fragmentation is the norm and attention spans are short, it's no mean feat to keep television viewers coming back to see the same show five days a week for four long years. In the Hindi general entertainment space it's all the more tougher given the bloodbath this genre has seen in recent years– three channels (9X, Real, and Imagine) have seen the axe, peak television rating points (TRP) have plunged to 4 from a high of 14, even as a host of channels have come up across genres targeting the same audience.
Much credit goes to the storyline of these long-running serials. “The life line of a serial depends on the scope of narrative offered by the story,” said Raj Nayak, CEO of Colors. In 2008 when Viacom18 launched its Hindi general entertainment channel Colors, Balika Vadhu was launched as its flagship show on the 8 pm time band. The show primarily dealt with the child marriage and therefore followed the lives of the two protagonists Jagya and Anandi who get married as children. The channel at that time had launched another show Uttaran which revolved around the friendship between a rich girl and a poor girl. While Balika Vadhu was aired on Colors at the 8 pm time band, Uttaran was telecast at 10 pm.
Around the same time, SAB TV launched its flagship show Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah at 8 pm. The serial is based on the happenings of Gokuldham society and day-to-day life of its members. A year later in 2009, Star Plus launched Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai at the 9:30 pm time band; while Zee TV launched Pavitra Rishta at 9 pm. These shows been have running on the prime time for nearly three to four years and one of the reasons cited for their long run is the kind of opportunity provided by the storylines which allowed both the creative team and the channel to play around with them. “In case of Balika Vadhu the story started at their childhood and then showed their grown-up side. At the same time it tackled all the possible ill effects of child marriage. Same is the case for Uttaran. As it started out as the story of two girls who meet at a tender age, we had the option to show various sides of their relationship,” said Nayak.
The fact that all these shows were on the prime time band helped. Timing, or scheduling, as it is known, plays a big role in getting the eyeballs. For example, if a channel is looking at launching a show targeted at slightly younger viewers, then it usually goes for the 7-7:30 pm time band. For example, Zee TV recently launched its youth centric show Sapne Suhane Ladakpan Ke at 7:30 pm. Again if a channel is looking at launching a show with an adult theme, then time slots between 9:30 to 10:30 pm can be used. Sukesh Motwani, programming head - fiction, Zee TV said, “A love story or a family drama can be placed at any time during the prime time, and, in the past, we have had example of shows doing well at time slots such as 10:30 pm. Most of the time, scheduling works on sheer gut feeling and broadcasters mostly rely on their judgment. Having said that, there are also cases when a broadcaster experiments with a show.” One such example is Sony’s decision to launch its supernatural serial Anamika at 8 pm.
Next is marketing. “As long as the consumer is not aware of your serial, no one is going to watch it,” said Satyajit Sen, CEO, ZenithOptimedia. Interestingly, marketing is no more restricted to a few print campaigns, a digital banner and a few outdoor hoardings. In fact, channels are taking steps to ensure that right from the characters to the storyline, everything becomes an integral part of the audience’s life. “Apart from ensuring that viewers gets to spend time with the lead characters of a particular show through various engagement programmes, special one-hour episodes also known as ‘Maha-episode’ have a special place in the heart of a channel. This gives the broadcaster a chance to create and build hype around a serial which further results in higher viewership. Again, a channel advertises about these special episodes across its networks and through other mediums. From time-to-time channels resort to such tactics,” added Sen. Hindi GEC Life Ok recently aired a series of Maha-episodes for about a week for its show, Mahadev.
Despite their long lifespans, it isn’t easy for these daily serials to maintain their viewership ratings. There was a time, mainly during 2000-2008 when daily serials garnered television viewer ratings (TVR) as high as 14-15 per week. Over the years, the scene has changed drastically with competition seeping in from all corners with the launch of a few more Hindi GECs as well as regional GECs. So now a serial generating rating between 3-4 is considered to be very good.
“With the rise in competition in the GEC space, fragmentation is a reality. While earlier it was easier to gain viewer loyalty for a particular show, the current scenario demands constant innovation,” said Nachiket Pantvaidya, general manager, Star Plus.
The term ‘innovation’ in this case generally refers to playing with the storyline, getting new characters, opting for a generation leap, etc. Leaps usually take place in two kind of scenarios. First, when a serial fails to get the desired rating and a leap is made or a new set of characters are introduced to set the ball rolling. In the second situation, a serial which is already performing well in terms of ratings is made to take a leap to build on the momentum. Both Balika Vadhu and Pavitra Rishta are such examples.
Interestingly, amidst all these, there are a few daily serials which have managed to do well without following this pattern. Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah and Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai are shows that have managed to thrive without any leap. While the former’s storyline is such that it does not require any leap, in case of the latter, the story has been progressing naturally, and is centered around the married protagonists and their family.
“There is no fixed formula when it comes implementing a leap or getting new characters. There are also cases when a serial’s rating continues to decline to despite a leap after which the serial is pulled out. But there are also cases when a serial reaches its logical conclusion and thus ends,” said Anooj Kapoor, executive vice-president and business head, SAB TV.
Typically from the day of launch, a daily soap is tested for 8 to 12 weeks and once it picks up from the 13th week it’s all about longevity. “ Before bringing the curtains down on any serial a channel gives it fair amount of air time Also, every possible formula is tried — right from new characters to leaps to make the story work for the viewers,” said Ajit Varghese, managing director, South Asia, Maxus and Motivator.
A loyal base
When a serial continues for two or three years, what it surely does is create a loyal base of viewers and a connection with the audience. However, this does not necessarily lead into generating high advertising rates. For Anita Nayyar, CEO, Havas Media, India and South Asia, completion of 1000 episodes is just a milestone for a show which the broadcaster can use to further build the story. “Just because it is a long-running show it does not mean that it will command a premium ad rate,” she said.
When it comes to wooing advertisers, only a few serials such as Balika Vadhu and Pavitra Rishta have managed to get title sponsors such as Odonil Nature and Fem, respectively. For the rest, their fate depends on the kind of ratings the show generates week after week. “Today, no brand is ready to make a long term commitment to a serial. For long-running shows, the only sunny side is that even when ratings decline a bit the advertiser tends to stick,” said Nayak.
According to market estimates, a fiction show such as Pavitra Rishta or Balika Vadhu on Colors commands an ad rate of R80,000-90,000, while a show such as Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah on Sab TV has ad rates of R60,000-70,000. In contrast, the ad rate for a reality show such as Bigg Boss is R1-1.5 lakh, and can even touch R2 lakh depending on the importance of an episode, for example, the final episode.
An advertiser looks for two things in a daily serial – an association which is purely driven by performance, that is, weekly ratings. The other, integration of a brand with the storyline. “While a long-term association rarely makes sense, a brand can always look at using the story line to promote itself. This kind of activity has a two-fold result, as it allows the brand to get consumer’s attention. At the same time that particular episode might witness an increase in rating,” said Tarun Khanna, head of marketing, Fiat India. For instance, before the launch of a product the brand can tie up with a channel for a particular show and through the storyline create a hype.
Agreeing with Khanna, Solomon Wheeler, general manager, marketing, SpiceJet, said, “From day one, television has been ruled by weekly ratings. And for a brand it is easier to look at integration with shows such as Bigg Boss which has a sizeable following compared to a daily soap where the following clearly depends on the flow of the story.”
At the end of the day though, these shows may not be able to bring in extra ad revenue. What is does allow a channel to do is build it as a property to create other programming around it. “Loyalty is now more directed at shows than channels and big viewership work as tent-poles around which channels can anchor a sheaf of other programming. Also, long-running shows with engrossing storylines create re-run and syndication opportunities for content owners (usually the broadcasters own content),” said Paritosh Joshi, an independent media consultant.