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The big bet of Bigg Boss

As the managing director of Endemol Shine India, the production house behind Bigg Boss, Deepak Dhar is thinking of new ways to keep the audience glued to television

Published: Jan 12, 2017

The financial markets generate a lot of number on a per second basis. There are people who have made it a profession to convert this information into trends, buy-sell signals, charts and pivot tables. Over the last 18 years of financial journalism, I have realised that every number has a story to tell. And these numbers as a trend normally never lie. I am forever looking for these trends.

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When Vindu Dara Singh watched the first season of the reality television show Bigg Boss on Sony Entertainment Television in 2006, he was convinced that he had it in him to be a contestant. He told his wife that he could surely win as he had the endurance level to last through the 100 days of the demanding show. Three years later, he was proved right when he was adjudged the winner of Bigg Boss 3. “I knew it was going to be tough contesting in Bigg Boss. I just decided to be nice to my fellow participants and that worked in my favour,” he says.

Bigg Boss is one of India’s most popular reality TV shows that follows contestants who cohabit a custom-built house that is isolated from the outside world (no internet, no TV, no phone). Numerous cameras watch the contestants’ every move, which is aired on TV after editing. Each week, at least one participant is evicted based on nominations from fellow housemates (as the contestants are called) and a public vote. The last person standing wins.

Bigg Boss is in its tenth season and has enjoyed high popularity ratings. Earlier the show was aired at 9.00 pm and this is the first time it has been moved to the 10.30 pm slot. Apart from Hindi, the show is also aired in Kannada and Bangla.

As the managing director of Endemol Shine India, the production house behind Bigg Boss, Deepak Dhar feels that the show has not lost any power over its audiences. He keeps meeting people desperate to appear on the show. Millions apply on the company’s official website. Sometimes, aspirants are outside his office, inside the parking lot and some even catch him in the elevator. He listens to each one patiently, careful not to miss out on a potential talent.

For Bigg Boss, Dhar looks for contestants without inhibitions. The show requires the house to have participants who are boisterous and known to the audience. “Bigg Boss is not scripted and our challenge has been to keep it edgy. We need participants who are not afraid to express their emotions. We have concentrated on roping in celebrities as contestants,” he says. “So, obviously, I would not make it to the show [as a contestant],” quips the 41-year-old Dhar, sitting in his office on the 16th floor of Grandeur building in Mumbai’s western suburb of Andheri.

One might easily mistake Endemol Shine India’s office as that of a private equity fund. There is none of the clatter that one would normally associate with a production house that runs and produces the biggest television shows in India—Fear Factor: Khatron Ke Khiladi and MasterChef India among others.

The company is a joint venture between The Netherlands-based global media company Endemol and CA Media, the media portfolio of The Chernin Group (TCG). While Endemol is known internationally for reality shows like Big Brother (on which Bigg Boss is modelled) and the drama series The Fall, Endemol Shine India has commissioned and produced around 150 Indian television shows over the last ten years across seven regional languages.

The company has been growing its income at 22 percent annually over the last decade and its revenue in 2016 has already crossed Rs 300 crore. Despite venturing into film production—Te3n (2016), Traffic (2016) and Brothers (2015)—Bigg Boss remains the biggest money-spinner for Endemol Shine India.

Dhar has always preferred to have celebrities as housemates because the Indian audience can relate to them, he says. Bigg Boss’s success has vindicated this idea since the first season in 2006. But Dhar is aware that the show can ill-afford monotony and hence for the current season, Dhar has turned this concept on its head.

For three years, he and Raj Nayak, the CEO of Colors TV (part of Network 18, the publishers of Forbes India), which has aired Bigg Boss since its second season, had been toying with the idea of roping in common people as housemates. “Our creative team wasn’t sure, so as a first step, we decided that around half the contestants would be celebrities and the rest ‘commoners’ [as they are called in the show]. This seems to have made this season [Bigg Boss 10] more buzzy and interesting,” says Nayak. Bigg Boss 10 has seven small-time celebrities and eight commoners in the house.

“The big challenge was to find contestants from common people, whom the audience could relate to and yet had the endurance level to survive for 100 days in an isolated house,” says Dhar. Around 1 lakh aspirants applied through social media and the website. Short-listing was done in multiple stages by the casting team. At one stage, candidates were put through a group discussion. The production house had to hire psychologists and behavioural experts to ensure that the contestants were not faking their emotions. After this, 15 candidates were chosen, of whom eight made it to the show.

Bigg Boss 10 has kept up the high ratings of the previous seasons. “The biggest challenge is to choose the participants. If you get that right, the show is on,” says Rajesh Kamat, managing director, Emerald Media, an investment vehicle formed by private equity firm KKR that has a minority stake in CA media.

Kamat is an old hand in the Indian television space. He started his career with Star TV in India as its senior vice president in 2004, where he worked along with Dhar, who had by then created the top-rated The Great Indian Laughter Challenge aired on Star One channel (which has since been rebranded as Life OK).

Dhar had also earned his stripes by creating an industry around comedy shows and identifying talented comedians like Raju Srivastav and Kapil Sharma. Dhar’s comedy shows had the backing of Sameer Nair, then CEO of Star TV India, who was constantly encouraging new ideas.

In 2006, Kamat got an offer to join Endemol and start Endemol India. He shared his plans of moving on with Nair. “I told Rajesh [Kamat] that he should take Deepak [Dhar] along with him. ‘While you look at the business, you will need a creative person to manage the shows', I had told Kamat then,” recounts Nair, who is now the group CEO of Balaji Telefilms.

That year, Kamat and Dhar started Endemol India (the company changed its name to Endemol Shine India in 2015) in a small office in Andheri. In the first week itself, Kamat walked over to Dhar and gave him CDs of the Big Brother show, the flagship show of Endemol which had become a global hit. He told Dhar to see if it can be adapted to India. Dhar realised the show had explicit content that would not be palatable to the Indian audience. He started reimagining the concept.

He decided the show would need celebrities. He and Kamat pitched the idea successfully at Sony Entertainment Television. Film actor Arshad Warsi was the host of the first season which was won by yesteryear actor Rahul Roy.

In 2008, Kamat moved to Viacom18 to start a new general entertainment channel called Colors and Dhar became the managing director of Endemol India. From its next season, Bigg Boss moved to Colors.

Kamat left to join CA Media in 2011 and Nayak took over as the CEO of Colors. “Bigg Boss is a complex and expensive show,” Nayak tells Forbes India.

The show is a collaborative effort where Shital Iyer who heads the non-fiction business of Colors and Malaya Pradhan, Senior Creative Director at Endemol Shine India work together on all the aspects of the show. The biggest challenge is to keep the show up and running for 15 weeks. It also means that the participants in the house should always stay motivated. The production team works 24 hours a day where the contestants are not prompted to behave in a particular way. "The point is to keep them going everyday. To produce an episode without intervention is the biggest challenge. It is pure reality in absolute form", says Pradhan.

The show requires around 300 people who work round the clock for three months. Since the show requires live editing, the pressure on the team that works outside of the Big Boss house is tremendous. A lot of the heavy lifting is done by Rakesh Shrivastava who heads operations and Sarvesh Singh, the production head.

The entire casting of the show is handled by Anand Chavan who works closely with Colors.

The biggest expenses are incurred on hidden cameras and diesel. Since the Bigg Boss house is located in  Lonavla, a hill station in Maharashtra on the outskirts of Mumbai, power cuts are common and the house has to run on diesel gensets.

Then comes the cost of the cameras. In the first season, there were not even 50 cameras in the house. Today, the 5,900-square-feet house has over 100 cameras because participants get smarter with every season and figure out ways to avoid the camera. Many times participants are close to breaking down and look for a place where no one can see them.

But that is the essence of the show. “The show is designed in such a way that you will break into tears. Each time I saw [Bollywood icon] Amitabh Bachchan hosting the show each week, I cried. I’m not an emotional person. But after being in an isolated house with strangers, you are desperate to be with your family,” says Vindu Dara Singh. “I even saw a psychiatrist when I was in the house. It was necessary.”

Bachchan hosted Bigg Boss 3 before Bollywood superstar Salman Khan took over. Khan has since done six seasons of the show.

So what’s next for Bigg Boss?

“We have learnings from 40 markets across the globe. Similar shows are in their 20th seasons in some markets and still retain their top ratings. I don’t see why this will not happen in India. Endemol Shine India and Colors are constantly thinking of new ways to keep the audience glued,” says Dhar.

Vindu Dara Singh feels that this is a show that works across all states in India. It is a show where people keep discussing who will make it to the finals. Singh prides on the fact that most of the time he had guessed the winners of the earlier seasons just by watching some few episodes. “For the first time, even I'm not sure who will be the winner for season 10. I earlier thought it could be Bani, then Gaurav but now I feel it could be one of the commoner contestants. I think in this season, only the last week will decide who is less greedy and will become the winner”, says Vindu Dara Singh.

Deepak Dhar raises his hands and says “Keep guessing”. He is already sitting with his creative team and Colors to discuss the next season.

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