TV has been the huge winner in the Indian mass market entertainment sweepstakes in the past decade. The plethora of channels available through cable at an incredibly low price (about Rs 200 or USD 4 per month) has made the TV the hub of entertainment in most Indian homes. Of course, the TV by itself is nothing more than an “idiot box”. What makes the difference is the programming, and this is where it gets interesting in India.
Indian prime-time television today is all about large families and the complex web of relationships, especially among the womenfolk. If most of the Indian movies depict escapism and teeny-bopper love, the TV serials are more about rivalry and hatred – all within the same family. And yet, there is an element of realism in what TV shows – characters which are more grounded in reality, and situations faced everyday. If films are about next-door neighbours, TV is now a story of one’s own home. The actors and actresses are more identified by their TV names and personalities. There is no Shah Rukh Khan or Hrithik Roshan on TV. There is Tulsi, Parvati, Kkusm and Kajal. Prime-time TV in India is like holding a mirror to Indian society.
18 months ago, most of the prime-time soap operas were broadcast weekly. There was a richer mix of programming. Today, it is about serials broadcast 4-5 times a week, 52 weeks a year. So, unlike the US where there may be 26 or at most 39 new episodes of prime-time programmes, in India there are 200-250 new episodes a year. (One of the last non-soap bastions in Star’s KBC, anchored by Amitabh Bachchan, takes a break soon.)
This has also changed the economics of TV serial production, with one company – Balaji Telefilms – accounting for nearly a third of the prime-time TV programming across the top 3 channels (Star, Sony and Zee). Balaji clearly benefits from the economies of scale which a factory approach to TV serials can bring.
Where the audiences have gone, the advertisers have followed. Ad revenues for Star, Sony and Zee are in the region of Rs 500 crores (USD 100 million) apiece. In addition, the TV channels have also started collecting small amounts of subscription money each month from the viewers through the cable networks. The big story of the last few years has been the rapid decline in the fortunes of India’s state broadcaster, Doordarshan.
The other big difference between India and the US lies in weekend programming. While much of the Saturday-Sunday watching in the US centres around sports, in India cricket is the only sport that people watch with on TV. And Cricket with its 9-to-5 spread takes place any of the days, not just on weekends. Weekends on TV in India are still somewhat film-centric, and this may be the area where changes take place in the coming years.