The era of the ‘idiot’ box

As television grew in numbers, the landscape underwent a complete transformation. What was once a film maker’s canvas became a playing ground for the sales teams who were only interested in hooking up the audience and raking in the moolah.

There was a time when shows like The World This Week, Turning Point, Bharat Ek Khoj had a dedicated audience who were interested in gaining knowledge about the world around them. My parents ensured that we all watch their latest episodes.

 But as commercialization of the channels began, the creators were no longer allowed to experiment. Instead, they were asked to create content that could completely serenade the audience! The reason was simple- it was all about the bottom line!

Money Matters Honey!

Earlier shows like Buniyaad and Hum Log had a pre-scripted storyline with a definite beginning, a finite number of episodes and a logical ending. However, that soon changed with the ‘K’ serials. Raghuvendra says, ‘As the number of channels increased, the game of TRPs became more important than creating new content or innovating new ideas. When ‘K’ shows like Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and their clones started grabbing TRPs, no one wanted to give up on the captured audience, especially with the rampant cut throat competition. Look at it from the channel’s point of view. A show with a TRP of 16 means that the channel can sell their ad slot of 10 seconds for a whooping one lakh rupees or even more. So, higher the TRP, more the sales of the ad slots. The show became a money earning machine for the channel! Naturally, the sales department didn’t want this to stop or the show to end because they knew that if the show ended, then they would lose the revenue. With such a good game going on, experimenting with a new show or concept was a risky proposition. So, the shows carried on for years with endless twists and turns including plastic surgery, knocking off characters, supernatural elements like ghosts, ghouls, witches and everything that they could think of.  Even today, they running rehashes of successful shows like Pavitra Rishta or Kasauti Zindagi Ki to  cash on an old successful formula which will at least guarantee 30 percent of the old viewership and a certain repeat value. Pavitra Rishta has especially benefited from this because it was the launchpad of late Sushant Singh Rajput and has been in the news after his untimely demise.’

Ved Thapar feels that now the game of TRPs is about confusing the audience completely. ‘Recently, I was narrating a story for a series to someone. The person said that my story isn’t moving fast enough. He said that after the first episode, the six-year-old girl in my story should grow up to be twelve and eighteen and so on. In every episode she should have to face new problems and challenges which should keep the audience glued to their seats. When I said that this does not happen in real life to which he replied that they aren’t making a real-life story at all. He bluntly told me that they make stories to trick people to get addicted to their mobile phones and television sets so that they cannot think of a life beyond watching this soap.’ Recently, I was narrating a story for a series to someone who said that my story isn’t moving fast enough. He said that after the first episode, the six year old girl in my story should grow up to be twelve and eighteen and so on. Then she should have to face new problems in every episode. When I said that this does not happen in real life to which they replied that they aren’t making a real life story at all. They bluntly told me that they are here to cheat real life. They further added that they make stories to trick people to get addicted to their mobile phones and television sets so that they cannot think of a life beyond watching this soap. They said that they cannot let the audience think because a thinking audience will never watch their shows; which will translate into losses amounting to billions of dollars which we earn by selling ads during these television serials. The executive producer who visits the set may tell me that the audience wants your moustache to be dyed orange because it has to match the curtains in the backdrop. So I believe that people who are creating these series are simply fooling those masses who watch them every night.

Jeetu Arora, director, writer, producer says that these days everything is about money and time. ‘The channel is reluctant to scrap a running show and invest money to market and create a new show. I have been directing television serials all my life but will never watch them. All the backgrounds, dresses and make up is fake. Yet women like my mother or your mother or even our maids or aunties love watching these shows because that’s what they have been watching all their lives!

Script less Drama Galore!

‘With television, the formula is ‘more the melodrama, the better it is’!, says Raghuvendra. ‘Even if a character is reacting to something, she would say ‘Kya’ in a melodramatic way and the camera would zoom on her face. Obviously, all this melodrama is designed to get the viewer emotionally attached to the show so that they cannot think of leaving it! This melodrama also serves another purpose. Since the shows normally don’t have a definite story line or content and no real script, the time is spent by zooming in on the faces of each of the actors again and again so that an episode with a four lined script can be stretched up to half an hour. This is now a convenient formula which is used by technicians, directors and even writers to ensure the audience attention with minimum input. So, today, substandard writers and directors are making their way laughing to the bank because all they have to do is pan the camera to the characters’ startled faces and trap the staring audience.

The So-Called Creatives

There was a time when film makers like Ramesh Sippy, Ramanand Sagar or B.R. Chopra created stories like Buniyaad, Ramayan and Mahabharat. As television grew, the onus of creating and researching new content fell on the creative team which brainstormed and churned out new ideas. This team had retired film makers who could advise the channel on the script and even the kind of shows to create. However, since then the scenario has completely changed. 

Raghuvendra says, ‘Today, in a city like Mumbai, we have mass communication institutes in every nook and corner. The people who graduate from these institutes are initially hired as trainees who are assigned to shows that are being produced by the channel. Their job is to oversee the production of the show. Being in the corporate ladder, these trainees are given increments and promotions every year or two. Most of these professionals are women. They love this kind of a job because it is associated with glamour, provides some level of security and a certain degree of authority since they are the representatives of the channel. Within 8-10 years, these so-called creatives become fiction heads of the channel. Just think about it! Someone with no experience of creating even a short story or absolutely no idea of what film making is becomes the fiction head of a channel! So to your question of why are things same in most shows- Simply because a fresh college graduate who got into the channel as a channel creative and is now the fiction head has been seeing the same thing for the last ten years and finds it easy to repeat what she knows. The fact is that they don’t know experimentation, so they stick to safe routes. They don’t have the passion or the thought or the mind of a film maker so they keep churning out the same content time and time again. They know the old formula- plenty of twists and turns, new characters and a baseless storyline are enough to keep the audience hooked.’

Jeetu Arora agrees. ‘Why aren’t we giving new shows to the audiences – We don’t have film makers who are doing television. These days, writers write scenes in minutes and give you. What can you expect from such people?’

Deep Dudani, a writer who has worked on serials like Balika Vadhu and many more feels that these days a show has simply become a case of too many cooks who may end up spoiling the broth! Jeetu Arora agrees, ‘Let us say that you made a Ramu Kaka track which receives good TRP, so you would forget about the main character and continue the Ramu Kaka track till you get a good TRP.

Dhiraj Sharma, writer, feels differently. ‘See most of us like the run of the mill life. For example, when we go to a restaurant with the family, mostly we would order one paneer dish, one dal, some chapati and rice. So these serials are like a typical family meal which is served every evening because people have gotten used to regular fare.’

‘While people may say that Ekta Kapoor is creating such stereotypic serials, content which negatively influences the youth, I won’t blame her entirely,’ says Ved Thapar. ‘Lets face it, this is the business of money and every one needs to earn at the end of the day. I recently created a comedy series titled ‘Sheikh Saab to Diwane Hain’ which is based on a Kashmiri Sheikh who is trying to get married and is meeting girls of different states. But when I approached producers for this series, they said that since this does not have a saas-bahu saga, it is not interesting enough and they won’t be able to sell it.’

Stereotypes rule

The television industry is ruled by stereotypes. Once an actor or a director is successful in a certain type of role or show, the chances of experimentation are almost nil and no one wants to experiment to fail.

‘People come here to earn money,’ says Dheeraj Sharma. ‘Their shelf life is one show. How many people remember Amar Upadhyay as Mihir in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi? One time, when he quit the show, there were protests to bring him back as Mihir but today no one remembers him. Most television actors have the same story. The moment you are out of sight, you are out of mind. So, they don’t want to risk trying to change their image because for that they will need to take time off, let the public forget their current performance so that they can accept them in a new avatar which requires investment and may or may not work!’

Deep Dudani agrees. ‘Look at the cast of a successful series like CID which ran for over 20 years! Good actors of that show like Shivaji Satam or Aditya Srivastav were so typecast in their roles of cops that no one wants to see them as anything but that! So, most of them make hay while the sun shines!

This article by Shailaza Singh was published in Rashtradoot’s Arbit Section on 24 October 2023


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