Sunday, May 31, 2015

Why no good TV?

In her latest piece for Newslaundry, my frenemy* Rajyashree Sen fondly reminisces on the hugely popular Mad Men, and on what makes the show great. And then she goes on to… compare it with Indian (read: Hindi) TV shows. Without taking anything away from the points she makes in the article - which you can read here - as of 2015 pointing out the poor quality of television content in India is a lot like saying there are potholes on Mumbai roads. Great observation, Sherlock!
These days it seems anyone writing an opinion piece on Indian TV shows has pretty much the same thing to say - it was good in the 80s, somewhat good in the 90s and then Ekta Kapoor. Yes, we get it. A certain kind of daily show hijacked prime time television and we all bleed for Buniyaad. Why is nobody talking about why things are the way they are? It’s no rocket science - the reason is glaringly obvious, and so is the solution.
We need to kill the daily format.
Like, seriously. Right now. The sooner the better. Indian TV screens are never going to see anything approximating quality as long as channels keep churning out five (or is it six now?) episodes a week, week after week, round the year, year after year or at least till the TRPs drop or the only decent actor on the show gets pregnant.
Rajyashree has mentioned shows like Homeland, Game of Thrones and Big Bang Theory. Consider the facts - a new season of Homeland comes with 12 episodes. In the four seasons of the show so far, a total 48 episodes have been produced. A season of Game of Thrones has 10 episodes.
Big Bang Theory, like most sitcoms and like US TV shows in general, has about 24 episodes in a season. And American shows are overall considered too tacky by UK standards. A BBC show typically has up to 6 episode in a season. BBC’s Sherlock comes out with three episodes (albeit each episode spanning a good 90 minutes) every two years. Stephen Moffat, the show’s producer, is also the man behind Coupling, one of the most hilarious sex comedies ever made. The entire series comprised of 24 episodes produced and broadcast over four years. Any given TV serial on any Indian channel produces that many episodes in a month.
It doesn’t help that we have no concept of seasons in fictional shows. Once a show goes on air, it stays on air, puking out five (or six) episodes a week until asked to stop, or in some cases, ordered by a law court to fucking wind up already. In the US, a show is commissioned for one season, and if the response is good, renewed for another season before the ongoing season winds up.  This means if they are not getting renewed for another year, the writers get the time to bring the show to a satisfying finale and muster as graceful an exit as possible. The writers, creators and actors also get a four-month breather before starting each new season.
So the 24 episodes created during a year get the benefit of a dedicated team in front of and behind the camera, well-planned and executed storylines for most of the characters, and stories within each episode tying up neatly to make it a good stand-alone instalment while also building towards larger story arcs.

All this needs time. If only channels are willing to grant that kind of time to producers.

It’s not even like nobody has tried doing this in India. When Sarabhai vs Sarabhai went off air after about 54 episodes, they promised to come back with a second season. That never happened.
More recently, the series on Mahabharat was appreciated for its much better production values than the general Indian standard. That’s because the production put in solid amount of preproduction work, and had been working on the series for almost two years. The crew seemed to know what they wanted to do - I once spoke to a prominent sound designer who had been approached for the post production on the series. When the production team briefed him on the kind of results they wanted, he said he’d need at least three days to work on each episode. The production schedule needed a 24-hour turnaround.
Most recently in December 2014, Disney Channel India took a shot at changing the status quo, as part of their re-aligning the focus on family entertainment. Under their 'Shanivaar Ravivar only for Parivaar' initiative, they launched five new family shows, all on a weekly schedule, each commissioned for a limited season spanning six months. More shows were supposed to follow, depending on how the first lot performed.
Each of the five shows has an interesting premise - have you heard of any one of them? No?

Tracking the fate of these new shows will give you a better insight on all that is wrong with Indian television entertainment.

As for the claim that we do have an audience for quality content, as evidenced by the popularity of international shows, you have to be kidding. Just what are the numbers here? There may be enough eyeballs for syndicated reruns of international shows that have already made their money in their home countries; there may even be enough audience to warranty bringing in some of the more popular shows within 24 hours of their international broadcast.
But do we really have enough audience to justify investing in well-scripted original content at a slower speed, subtler dramatisation, not to forget the involved risk in going off the beaten track? What makes channels stick to the same tripe year after year, show after show?
Well one of my favourite theories is that the audience numbers have exponentially increased since the 90’s. Very few people actually owned TV sets in the early days of Doordarshan. Fewer still had cable connections in the early 90s, when channels like Zee and Sony entered the arena. In my view, that was the boldest phase of TV - no longer bound by the stuffy standards of the national channel, and not yet bogged down by the numbers game by focussing on a predominantly urban audience, these channels were ‘cool’ to begin with. TV screens were suddenly more hip, more colourful, and bolder. Amit Behl - the guy who you might remember as the patriarch from many family dramas in recent times - even did the unthinkable on a Sony show once - he kissed. A woman. On the mouth. Not that onscreen lip locks equal better quality, I just mean to point out that shows at the time were willing to push the envelope.
As cable proliferated further, the lowest common denominator in audience taste dropped. Star Plus, which entered the Hindi entertainment arena later in the day, proved with Kyunki… that there is audience for simple family dramas with strong, tradition-espousing themes. To be fair, Kyunki… is often wrongly accused of heralding a lot of evils to primetime Television. It wasn’t the first show to use generation leaps as a device to stretch the story further (that honour goes to Tara in the early 90s), nor the first daily soap (that was Shanti, first broadcast on… wait for it… Doordarshan) or even the first one to resurrect dead characters (Shanti again). In fact, compared to most shows airing around the time, Kyunki was admirably… simple. The characters were far more real and dealt with very simple, relatable challenges - there was the kid who got depressed at consistently failing his exams, the morally upright son who took at stand for the woman he loved, the Bahu who fulfilled her wifely duties with grace and integrity despite the less than warm welcome in her marital home. In fact, if you compare the first few episodes of the show with the parody of itself that it had become during its last moments, you’ll find the greatest indictment of audience taste/channel priorities.

Another clue: the ratings of Diya Aur Bati Hum have dropped ever since Sandhya actually became a police officer - which was, you know, supposed to be the whole point of that show.

So yeah, we do have good content every now and then. At least, there are people who try to bring in good content. But between channels unwilling to experiment, or channels punished for trying to do something different, impossible production schedules, and TRPs that reflect no affinity towards quality content… good television is pretty much doomed here.
Unless it’s produced somewhere else.

* Well the frenmity is totally one-sided. I do love reading her articles spiked with feminist rants every once in a while, but then she indulges in a spot of victim-blaming and makes me wonder my choice of reading. Ah, well.

Note: For the purpose of this piece, I'm only talking about fictional shows. Reality shows are a can of worms I don't have the stomach for.

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