Paritosh Joshi: We watch their CSI but do they watch our {insert name of randomly chosen Indian TV show}?

By Paritosh Joshi

 

Look at the infinite appetite the entire world shows for syndicating American content. Hollywood cinema kick started what has often been derisively labled Cocacolonization well nigh a century back. The flickering images of American silent films left millions around the planet dumbfounded with amazement from the very beginning of the 20th century. Decades later, as my generation was growing up with India’s limited TV choice in the 70s and 80s, we shared the world’s sentiment in acknowledging ‘I love Lucy‘ and still later, kids in the late 80s proudly held up toy plastic swords as they defended imaginary CastleGrayskulls shouting “I HAVE THE POWER” while ‘He Man and the Masters of the Universe‘ played on the box before them.

 

Now while we have fair nostalgia about ‘Hum Log’ and the Sutradhar cameo that the venerable Ashok Kumar signed each episode off with, does anyone seriously believe that somewhere in some remote corner of the planet, a Creole family is settling down to watch the dipsomaniac Basesar Ram and anguished Bhagwanti go through their schmaltzy half an hour a day?

 

This is not a rhetorical question but a very serious one. American TV executives know that the shelf life and ability to travel of a show make a huge difference to its economics. Indeed, that syndication is where the real money is. What do they do, guided by this simple but crucial insight? Are their any other TV markets that have learnt this lesson? Can we?

 

Super size me

These three weeks spent in various parts of the US was a reminder of the American obsession with BIG. It isn’t hard to see why. No matter where you travel into that country from, you will have been accustomed to life and landscape on a smaller scale than the immensity that is America. Grow up there and you have bigness hardwired into your DNA. American content producers have always erred on the side of big is beautiful, never mind Mr Schumacher. Think of the characters that the American content industry has immortalized. Tarzan, bringing to mind the massively muscled Johnny Weissmuller, showed a path that led fairly directly to a massively muscled Christian Bale as the Dark Knight over seven decades later. At the other end of the scale, only the American mind could super-size a rodent into a lovable character of animation and comic books. I mean if that hero of Steamboat Willie that we all grew up loving was real, we would have to imagine an animal about 4 feet tall. More Mickey Capybara, less Mickey Mouse.

 

Now try if you will, to find a Jagya or Arnav or Om Agarwal, to fill those really big shoes.

 

Too Big to Fail

American creative minds wrap themselves around scales of production that would leave everyone else gasping for breath. A TV series such as Prison Break will have a 3 or 4 million dollar budget per episode. Let me put that into context for you. A big primetime fiction show on a Hindi GEC probably costs no more than Rs. 25 lakh, ~40 thousand dollars, or about 1% of that. Even the fantastically expensive versions of KBC probably cost no more than Rs. 2-3 crores per episode, ~ 0.7 million dollars, and the bulk of that goes to the star anchoring the show. Prison Break has no stars. Bulk of the cost is resides in the production values. And it is those production values exactly: sets, stunts, action sequences, special effects, CGI, cameras on giant jimmyjibs and airborne on helicopters; that the world can’t get enough of. Look at a more recent example of the American gift for razzmatazz. Did you see the Republican National Convention? Or the Democratic one? You were scarcely alone. Yes, those were not merely political rallies but designed to be global television extravaganzas attracting a billion strong audience.

 

Here’s looking at you, kid

Contrast the trials and tribulations of the apocryphal joint family that provides the stock in trade of an Indian daily soap with those faced by the protagonist of, say, Burn Notice, that has now gone six seasons with Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan) and just four or five other significant characters. Not only does this give the content makers the opportunity to etch out strong and credible characterisations, it ensures that audiences build enduring relationships and loyalties for them. Now while you might remember Prerna, Anurag and Komolika from Kasauti Zindagi Kay (sic!), can you name any of the 50 others who played big parts over its 1400 episodes?

 

There is, however, a crucial ‘condition precedent’ that enables this to happen. A fiction idea won’t fly unless the story arc can be firmly anchored around a protagonist of epic proportions. Hey, they have complete theories on how to achieve this!

 

Seasonal not perennial

American television has a wonderful deciduousness to it. At the end of 13 weeks, more or less, the show sheds its leaves and comes back renewed and efflorescent a year later. Everyone gets a break. The actors go away to other roles. The directors pursue different projects. And the audience is free to build up its appetite for characters it misses on the screen until, when it is about to drift from ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder’ to ‘out of sight, out of mind’, they are back to woo them again.

 

There’s a common thread that runs through doing TV the American way. The Hispanics in the beautiful city I recently visited have a term for it.

 

They call it Cojones.

 

p.s. Sorry for the missed episode last week, not that anyone missed it.

 

Paritosh Joshi was until recently CEO, Star CJ. He has been a marketer, a mediaperson and on the Board/committees of various industry bodies. He can reached via his Twitter handle @paritoshZero

 

 

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