An epic battle

Written by Anushree Bhattacharyya | Updated: Aug 27 2013, 16:23pm hrs
A quiet revolution is unfolding in the Hindi general entertainment space. Epic shows are back on prime-time. And they are getting the eyeballs and the sponsors. Devon Ke Dev- Mahadev on Like Ok was first off the block, but there are several more looking to hook the viewer. So much so that we now have an epic-only general entertainment channel (GEC), rightly called Epic TV, that airs television serials built around the countrys history, folklore and mythology.

On December 18, 2011, Star India relaunched its second GEC Star One as Life Ok. It was about this time that the channel launched its mythology-based show, Devon Ke Dev-Mahadev, which changed the course of life for epic shows. And thanks to the success of Mahadev, the television screen today is host to a number of historical/mythological sagas such as Savitri (on Life Ok), Bharat Ka Veer Putra Maharana Pratap (Sony), Jodha Akbar (Zee TV), Jai Jai Jai Bajarangbali (Sahara One), Baal Veer (SAB TV). Waiting in the wings are a few more such as Buddha to be aired on Zee TV and Mahabharat on Star Plus. The other reason behind the return of epic shows is that the epic genre had an unlikely supporter in Satyamev Jayate, the reality show anchored by Bollywood star Aamir Khan which took a new look at social issues. According to media analysts, the success of Satyamev Jayate on the Sunday morning time band played a part in reviving the interest in the morning shows and soon other channels latched on to the opportunity by launching a series of shows. Zee TV acted swiftly and launched yet another version of Ramayan produced by Sagar Arts on Sunday morning at 11 am.

Raj Nayak, chief executive officer, Colors, the Hindi GEC from the Viacom18 stable, says epic shows virtually never went off the screen as these have a timeless appeal. As these are more inclusive shows appealing to almost all members of a family, broadcasters need to keep the option of such shows in their bouquet of content offering. With the ever-growing television watching population, and televisions seepage into the smaller towns, TV viewing is bound to get even more inclusive in nature. In such a scenario, mythological/epic content shall definitely have a larger role to play, and it will be imperative for broadcasters to keep such shows in the pipeline, said Nayak.

Agrees PM Balakrishnan, COO, Allied Media, Viewers will never be tired of such shows. The younger generation would always want to know the countrys history and the older generation will be happy to relive that history, being a part of it. So there will always be an audience for such kinds of shows. From the older generation to the younger one, everyone wants to be a part of the epic.

Over the years, broadcasters have tried to replicate the spectacular success that Indian televisions original epic shows Ramanand Sagars Ramayan (1987-88) and BR Chopras Mahabharata (1988-1990)on Doordarshan had achieved. Since then the television screen has played host to many historical/mythological shows including Chanakya (1991) and Shri Krishna on Doordarshan (1993). It, however, hasnt been as rosy since then. In 2002, Zee burnt its hands with BR Chopras Ramayan. Again, in 2009, Sonys Chittod Ki Rani Padmini and NDTV Imagines Meera were wiped out within six months of their launch. Ekta Kapoors modern and westernised version of Mahabharat, titled Kahaani Hamaaray Mahaabhaarat Ki which was launched on 9X in 2008, too got a tepid response from the audience, and was finally pulled out in 2011. Only a handfulRamayan on Imagine TV (2008), Jhansi Ki Rani on Zee TV (2009), Chandragupta Maurya on Imagine TV (2011) and Veer Shivaji on Colors (2011) managed to draw average ratings.

For an epic show to be successful everything needs to work in favour, right from the cast to the set to the storytelling. For instance, when Ekta Kapoor launched a very modern adaptation of Mahabharat, Indian viewers rejected it instantly as it failed to strike a chord in all the aspects, said a media planner who did not want to be named.

Complete package

When it comes to epic shows, everything is on a gigantic scale. Contrary to a regular soap, the sets for a mythological/historical show continuously changes, depending on the narrative. Whether it is about creating big palaces or forests or even a battlefield, everything needs to look grand and opulent. Therefore, the per day cost of production of such shows is higher. This kind of content requires huge investments right from creating the set to clothes, jewellery, etc. We have taken 5-7 acres of land for the entire set apart from using the set which was created for the film, Jodhaa Akbar. Epic shows are lavish affairs and such lavishness plays a big part in story telling, said Ajay Bhalwankar, content head, (Hindi GEC), Zee TV.

Balaji Telefims which produces Jodha Akbar has rented ND Studio owned by designer and producer Nitin Desai. Interestingly, the set was originally used to shoot the film Jodha Akbar. Meanwhile, in case of Mahadev, Life Ok refrained from creating a real set and used graphics to create visual representation. The channel claims that a team of 120 graphic artists produces 10-15 minutes of content every day.

Execution plays an important role. In our case we had to get everything perfect. Instead of making the usual set we created a chroma based set and therefore relied more on graphics, said Ajit Thakur, general manager, Life Ok. Ketan Gupta, chief operating officer, special projects, Balaji Telefilms goes on to say that the production company invested heavily on the sets of Jodha Akbar. When we moved to ND Studio the set was in shambles so we invested in rebuilding almost the entire set, added Gupta.

So while the per day cost of production of a daily soap such as Balika Vadhu on Colors or Sathiya on Star Plus, where there are not too many changes in the sets and only one or two houses are required, is R 7-9 lakh, the per day cost of production of a show such as Mahadev or Mahabharat is R13-15 lakh per day.

In fact, for its show Jodha Akbar, Balaji Telefilms invested R50-80 lakh in creating the right jewellery, while almost 30% of the total budget of Maharana Pratap has been allocated to costumes, and in case of Mahadev, 30% of the production cost has been allocated to graphics. The kind of investment made in such shows are usually five times more than that of a regular daily soap. However, bulk of that investment is made at one go and then we keep adding to it, said Gupta of Balaji Telefilms.

The script plays a pivotal role for epic dramas. While scripts for the Ramayan and the Mahabharat are easily available, for other historical shows, channels rely heavily on their research teams. For instance, Chanakya required about five years of research, while for Chandragupta Maurya (Imagine TV) and Veer Shivaji (Colors), the respective production companies, Sagar Arts and Contiloe Entertainment, worked on the script for about three years. With stories such as Mahabharat and Ramayan that have been told many times, each time one tries to present ones own adaptation. While the first Mahabharat was aired 25 years back, the one that we are making is our own adaption of the poem. The overall presentation will be different, said Siddharth Kumar Tewary of Swastik Productions. Tewarys production company has begun the shoot for Mahabharat, which is slated to go on air on Star Plus at 8:30 pm on weekdays from September 16. Colorss Nayak says that the biggest challenge in such shows is to get adequate research in place and have the right kind of writers so that both the initial impact as well as the longevity of the show is assured.

In most of the cases, channels try to balance between

the languagemostly Sanskritin which the original text was written, and the language spoken by the average Indian audience. One should look at a language that will attract both the older as well the younger generation while maintaining authenticity. At the end of the day, people should be able to understand the narrative or else the viewership may decline, said Thakur of Life Ok. For example, in case of Mahadev while we stuck to the original script, Sanskrit, the language spoken on the screen, was made colloquial so that viewers are easily able to understand.

As Indian audiences still remember actor Arun Govil as the perfect epitome of Ram, getting the right actors can be a daunting task for both the channel as well as the production company. Not to forget that in the past, some of the popular faces of television have failed to impress the viewers. For instance, Smriti Irani of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi fame was not accepted by the audience when she played the role of Sita in BR Chopras Ramayan that was aired on Zee . While Life Ok struck gold with actor Mohit Raina who plays the lead role of Shiva in Mahadev, Ekta Kapoor herself visited auditions in Mumbai, Bhopal, Kolkata and Pune to personally handpick the right actors for the roles of Mughal emperor Akbar and his wife Jodha Bai. Kapoor finally roped in actor Rajat Tokas known for his portrayal of young Prithviraj in the epic saga Prithviraj Chauhan while talent hunt winner Paridhi Sharma was chosen to essay the role of Jodha Bai. It is very critical to get the casting right as the viewers need to be able to relate with the character that a particular actor is essaying. Look, diction, built, etc., are all integral to getting the right cast for each specific role, explained Colors Nayak.

Since epic shows continue for a period of two-three years, production companies prefer long-term deals. Most of the time, channels and production companies sign long-term deals of two to three years with the cast to save on day-to-day costs. On an average, an actor has to be paid R30,000 to R1 lakh per day depending on her popularity. However, this does not stop the channel from showing the door to a particular character, if need be, said a media planner on condition of anonymity. The cost further increases if the channel ropes in a popular face. For example, televisions popular actors such as Ronit Roy or Ram Kapoor earn R1-1.25 lakh per day, while actresses such as Mona Singh or Shakshi Tanwar draw a cheque of R70,000-80,000 per day. Life Ok was recently in the news for replacing its female lead in Mahadev.

Counting the returns

As the name suggests, epic shows are a grand affair, therefore these shows are expected to yield better results in terms of viewership. In case of a regular soap the expected television viewership ratings (TVR) is2-2.5. In fact, shows that cross the 2.5 mark are considered to be a hit. However, in case of historical/mythology based shows, shows that cross the 2.5-3.5 mark are considered hits. Unlike normal stories, sudden spikes cannot be expected in case of an epic or mythology show. These stories progress as per the original script and so take time to generate the expected results, said RS Suriyanarayan, associate vice-president, Initiative Media, a media planning and buying agency from the house of Lintas Media Group.

Maharana Pratap, which recorded a TVR of 1.6 on the opening night, has since then witnessed a rise in its TVR to 2.2, says Sony. While Zee TV claims that Jodha Akbar registered a TVR of 2.5 on its opening night. Life Oks Mahadev still remains the hero, as the show on an average clocks TVR of 2-3. Viewership ratings depend on the channel. For a new channel such as Life Ok which is still growing, a TVR of 2 means that the show is doing extremely well. Initially, Mahadev clocked a TVR of 0.7, but after six months the rating increased to 2, sometimes it went up to 3. Last year, the series of episodes on goddess Kali clocked the highest ratings of 8, said Thakur.

With the cost of production almost 50% more than that of a regular soap, the return on investments is expected to be equally gratifying. There are three kinds of general entertainment channelstier 1, 2 and 3. The first tier has channels such as Zee, Sony, Colors, Star Plus while the second-rung GEC channels include Life Ok and SAB TV. The third group houses channels such as Star Utsav which runs old programmes and Sahara One. GECs in the first category garner more than 200 GRPs (the sum of all TVRs) every week, while channels that belong to the second category on an average clock 100 GRPs every week, while channels in the third group garner less than 40 points. Accordingly, the ad rates commanded by the respective channels also differ. While the first group of channels command a premium, ad rates of second-rung GECs are lower while tier 3 channels bring up the rear.

Usually ad rates are fixed for a year in advance as all the stakeholders broadcasters, advertisers as well as media agenciesare aware of the kind of GRPs the three kinds of GECs are expected to generate, said Smita Jha, leader, entertainment and media practice India, PwC, a management consulting firm. For instance, top-rung GECs such as Zee TV or Sony ask for R80,000-1, 20,000 for a 10-second slot during prime-time, depending on the popularity of the show. As for a second-rung GEC such as Life Ok, even the best scoring show such as Mahadev will not fetch more than R75,000-80,000 for a 10-second spot. Again, in most cases, epic shows command 10-20% higher ad rates compared to regular soaps such as Pavitra Rishta on Zee TV or Junoon - Aisi Nafrat, toh Kaisa Ishq on Life Ok. Additionally, channels rely on Maha-episodes (special episodes of an hour) from time to time to generate a spike in viewership as well as ad rates. Such episodes typically generate a 10-20% hike in viewership and almost 25% increase in ad rates.

However, Thakur of Life Ok points out that as these shows are aired for a longer period of time they take time to turn profitable. Initially we were making losses, but gradually the show managed to get enough advertisers on board. It took us almost a year to find our ground and today Mahadev has a lead sponsor, Shakti Bhog, he added.

Most of the time such shows are targeted at the family which further creates a perfect opportunity for brands to attract their target consumers. Such shows appeal to a broad spectrum of advertisers, therefore, we have a huge range of brands advertising during the show. One should not forget that brands want to be associated with positive stories. Anything dark and negative limit the access of brands to the content. Also, as these shows are meant for family viewing, they paved a direct way for brands to attract consumers of all ages at one go, said Man Jit Singh, CEO, Multi Screen Media (MSM). During the weekday, a show such as Mahadev has 15-20 advertisers on board, while the number increases to 30 during the weekend. From Oral-B to Whisper, Dabur Real Juice to Fem Bleach, Axe deodorant to Surf Excel, all sorts of brands can be see advertising during such shows.

In order to ensure that viewers watch the show from Day One, broadcasters opt for various marketing tactics that include launch of a high-decibel campaign across all media including television, radio, print, outdoor, digital, apart from on-ground activations. Life Ok, for example, launched 10,000 DVDs of Mahadev. The DVDs contained all the episodes that were aired during the first six months. Additionally, it launched the Mahadev Ganga Mahotsav, an awareness drive to find plausible solutions to conserve the Ganga river, in various cities including Haridwar, Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna, and Kolkata. Continuous marketing helps in maintaining the momentum. We, at Sony, keep promoting Maharana Pratap, even after the show has been launched. In fact, once every month the cast travels to a new city to interact with the audience. Last month we went to Delhi, said Sneha Rajani, senior EVP and business head, Sony Entertainment Television.