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Has television taken over our lives?
Abhilasha Ojha
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January 15, 2005

Twenty-five million viewers sigh and cry every Friday as yet another contestant is eliminated from the sets of Indian Idol.

Simi Grewal must be feeling the chill as her audience turns out in full strength to have Koffee with Karan.

Jassi was to have transmorgified into a femme fatale but the success of her homegrown persona is giving everyone associated with the serial cold feet. Circa 2005, has television taken over our lives?

There have been notable pulls all along, from the Sunday Mahabharat epic saga when there was no choice of channels to Kaun Banega Crorepati that deified Amitabh Bachchan and brought respect to the idiot box, to Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi when you could wear out your thumb surfing channels.

But nothing could have prepared India for the biggest thing to have rocked its home theatre systems towards the last quarter of last year when reality TV changed all known perceptions on the head.

"The big trend on television in 2004 was definitely talent hunt shows," says television critic Poonam Saxena. On every channel, at every hour, viewers were getting adrenalin-feeds off those selected or rejected.

From American Idol to The Apprentice where billionaire Donald Trump points a finger and shouts "You're fired!" at some unfortunate, from Get Gorgeous to Super Singer, from Mr & Ms Bollywood to Figure It Out, from Dance Dance to launching a hunt for the best fashion designer, there had never been so much interactive television before in India.

Every Thursday, networks were jammed for hours as Indian audiences voted for their Indian Idol. "Television in India," says Ashwini Yardi, programming head, Zee TV, "has undergone a tremendous change and our efforts to foray into the reality television genre paid off, especially with Cine Stars Ki Khoj."

The show that started in mid-2004 travelled to 20 cities where nearly 10 lakh (1 million) aspirants tried their luck in the hope of a dream debut in Bollywood in a film directed by Sudhir Mishra.

"We received a phenomenal response for the programme and over 6,72,000 SMS votes for the final show alone," says Yardi. The channel is working overtime to start a second round by mid-2005.

Indian Idol, Sony Television's trump card, is flush with one of the highest Television Viewer Ratings that Indian television has ever seen, and saw 1.5 million votes polled during the first two episodes where audiences were allowed to cast their votes.

It's even proved every bit worth the huge cost of hosting the show -- industry sources say each episode costs Rs 60 lakh (Rs 6 million); another Rs 15 crore (Rs 150 million) is being spent on promotions alone -- which is why even a 10-second ad spot costs Rs 125,000 on the show.

By the time it winds up its first season, it will have spent a little over Rs 40 crore (Rs 400 million) for 72 episodes, and more than recovered it from the advertisers who've seen its blanket pull across India.

Has reality TV managed to contain the trend of the saas-bahu soap factory? Saxena refuses to believe that Ekta Kapoor's serials and its clones are in any danger of suffocation at the hands of the reality genre.

"She (Kapoor) has a strong audience and even now her shows are well received by a sizeable audience. However, Indian Idol is definitely leading the way." The show is averaging a TVR of 5.5 -- last week it was a whopping 6.1 -- and advertisers include Procter & Gamble, Airtel, Nokia, Godrej [Get Quote], and now Pepsi.

"There's a huge universe out there watching Indian television," says Niret Alva, president, Miditech, the production house that's producing the biggie Indian Idol.

Alva's Miditech has forayed into fiction and drama besides reality and other shows on channels like Star TV, Star One, Sony, Disney, Zoom and Sahara. The business grew at the fag end of 2004 when Star One and Zoom were launched in the lifestyle segments.

Another bit of that universe was tapped when UTV -- a production house that excels in fiction programmes -- launched Hungama, an exclusive channel for kids. In fact, last year saw seven kids channels being launched in India including Pogo and Animax.

In the same segment, Disney tied up with Star to distribute two of its channels in Tamil and Telugu, which was another drift last year.

"Indian television is all set to tap the regional market in a big way," confirms Probal Gaanguly, head of sales, Star News. Star News is all set to launch its 24-hour hour Bengali news channel soon, and Gaanguly adds, "News is a very important segment and in 2004 we saw tremendous growth in this segment."

According to TAM research, Star News grew by 80 per cent in 2004 in overall advertising revenues as compared to 2003. Overall advertising revenue from Hindi news channels was Rs 400 crore (Rs 4 billion) in 2004, an increase of 13 per cent over 2003.

"The reason Indian television is working for everyone is because it's reaching out to them across all the country," reasons Tarun Katial, executive VP, programming and response, Sony Entertainment Television. "Reality TV gave people from the most humble backgrounds a shot at stardom, while fiction programmes gelled and got many small screen stars instant recognition," he says.

He's right. Aashka Goradia, the 19-year-old who essays the character Kkumud in the serial Kkusum on Sony Television shoots for nearly 16 hours four-five days every week. And though she won't share her spoils with the media, industry sources estimate most seasoned actors who're paid per episode average between Rs 25,000-30,000 per episode, while even younger artistes make Rs 10,000-15,000 per episode.

That's a sizeable chunk, even without the endorsements and special appearances and modelling assignments and compering requests that fill their coffers.

"Earlier, people were scared to lend me money," says Goradia who recently purchased an Accent Viva with her "hard-earned money". She boasts: "My earnings now match the lifestyle I always had in mind." Shama Sikander, who plays Pooja in Ye Meri Life Hai, dumped her Matiz recently and replaced it with a Scorpio.

What will 2005 hold on the idiot box? "Reality television is here to stay," says Saxena. "I'm convinced audiences in India have an appetite for celeb chat shows," predicts Alva.

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