Hindi entertainment channels are giving their on-screen woman an identity away from the usual bahu who cooks in the kitchen and schemes in the bedroom
Sigmund Freud once famously said: The great question that has never been answered, and which I have not yet been able to answer, despite my thirty years of research into the feminine soul is, what does a woman want?
It is the kind of lament that is often echoed by intellectual persuasions of all kinds. That said, the lament has never deterred the brave in their search for the Holy Grail. Call it elusive, call it what you will. But the brave (foolhardy, perhaps) often find wisps and bet their lives and fortunes trying to hunt the truth down.
This story is about a band of such brave Grail hunters — Star Plus, Colors, Zee and Sony — general entertainment channels (GEC), each of whom believe they’ve figured what goes in the minds of women who watch their shows.
Let’s begin with Star Plus which believes in Suhana, the protagonist of a prime time soap called Sasural Genda Phool. Unlike any other character in the past, Suhana is the kind of bahu (daughter-in-law) who doesn’t give a damn for joint families, fancy saris, chunky jewelry and the melodrama that accompanies Indian homes. Viewers have variously described the show as funny and sweet. But twenty two weeks since it was first given air time, Suhana hasn’t quite set the stage on fire. On Star Plus, it is the fifth most watched prime time show; and is some way off before it makes the list of Top 10 shows on all general entertainment channels even once.
But executives at Star aren’t flinching. On the contrary, they’re at work creating a programming strategy around women like Suhana. Why? Because their research on women in their late twenties, across the large Hindi heartland, indicates she is the kind of person they’d like to emulate.
If you think that risky, consider this. Colors, Zee and Sony, arch rivals all, have taken a call on who their core viewer is, what does she think like, and how she ought to be pandered to.
This is the newest twist in the battle for eyeballs on prime time television where a vicious war for higher ratings broke out around two years ago.
On the face of it, there is no need for panic. Hindi GECs still control almost a quarter of the total television viewing base. Thanks to increased cable penetration, close to 40 million viewers are being added to the total viewership base every year. And in the last ten quarters, viewers in Hindi speaking markets have spent 26 percent more time watching Hindi GECs.
Ironically though, ratings for all shows on every GEC have actually dropped. Blame it on increased competition. Since the launch and runaway success of Colors, a Viacom 18 company, (which is part of the Network 18 group that also publishes Forbes India), it has fought Star Plus and Zee in brutal battles to retain the top spot. Over the last one year, the yellow jersey has flip- flopped between Colors and Star Plus and sometimes Zee. Backed by its new high-blitz ad campaign, Star Plus has clawed its way back to Number 1 for the last several weeks.
Until the emergence of Colors, all GECs offered a predictable mix of saas-bahu soaps. “The clutter has encouraged channels to re-position and differentiate,” says Sanjay Gupta, COO, Star India. With at least two new GECs (Colors and Imagine) launched since 2008 and more than 40 million cable TV viewers getting added every year, Television Audience Measurement’s (TAM) CEO L.V. Krishnan says this could just be the beginning because with digitisation this trend will get accentuated and “channels will have to brand themselves like an FMCG product”.
The New Star
In its newest avatar, Star Plus has chosen to target the woman in her mid 20s — slightly younger than its target audience so far — and much of its programming mix will now single-mindedly focus on her preferences. In effect, Star Plus is focusing on the largest demographic segment watching GECs: Women in the age group of 15-34. Their logic is simple. While older women spend more time watching television, in terms of sheer size of the audience, these younger, newly married women make up a larger chunk.
When the marketing team travelled to viewer homes across cities, small towns and rural areas, they came up with fresh insights on how aspirations have changed. Gupta says he met the wife of a wealthy diamond merchant in Surat. She lives in a joint family and is trying her hand at design for her husband’s business. “I want people to know me as Mrs. Reena Mehta, not Mrs. Mehta,” she told him. Gupta calls this “mega change”. In earlier shows, characters like Tulsi were content with home and hearth.
“We figured consumers had moved, but we hadn’t,” he says. That is how the character of a jeans and spaghetti-top wearing Suhana was created. Gupta claims the show is a leader in its slot lending credence to their research and has increased the team’s conviction that they are indeed on the right track with their positioning — Rishta Wahi, Soch Nayi.
The Colors Inspiration
Before they launched their channel, research by executives at Colors indicated viewers were fatigued by conniving women and anything goes plots. “They were watching, but cribbing about it,” says Ashvini Yardi, programming head at Colors.
Colors picked up more than 63 percent of its audiences from small-town India with its distinct mix of programmes during the 7 to 9 p.m. time band. Many of these are first-time viewers, from tier II and III cities and semi-urban towns populated by less than a million people. They couldn’t see themselves on prime time shows that were being aired then. Colors connected by going easy on the make-up, created characters not as wealthy as their counterparts on competing channels and deal with issues common in small town India.
“I think people accepted characters like mine because we are dealing with real issues in rural settings that make it more believable,” says Meghna Malik, who plays the popular character of Ammaji in Color’s Na Aana Is Des Laado, a soap on female infanticide. While her character is villainous, Malik says, the audience accept her because “They want more than just the lift of the eyebrow. They want us to be cunning not just in words but in action.” And in the context of issues such as child marriage or infanticide, the character’s hard hitting antics fit in.
Figuring out how much change is acceptable wasn’t easy. Yardi says viewers can often predict what twist a soap may take, but they don’t want to. “They want to be surprised,” and Yardi’s task is to surprise them without pushing the boundaries enough that they’re turned off.
For instance, once when she killed a character on the popular show Baalika Vadhu, ratings went sky high and then plummeted. Audience research showed viewers sympathised with the dead character’s widow and didn’t want to see so much sadness in her life. Yardi quickly introduced a lighter character to bring some humour and fun into to the show.
The Zee Formula
Zee isn’t fussed about defining its audience sharply. It continues to target middle-class women in both urban and rural India. But there’s one distinct change: They reckon their serials and soaps must clearly reflect changing aspirations. “For instance, in the 90s, film and TV serials were centred on the daily struggle of life to make two ends meet. The saas-bahu serials, family feuds and joint family issues followed next. The soaps sold dreams and aspirations of big palatial houses and rich families,” says Ashish Golwankar, head of non-fiction programming, Zee TV. Once the post-liberalisation generation had money in their pocket, they were not concerned with making two ends meet. The focus, therefore, began to shift towards higher order issues: How to improve society rather than narrowly focus on their own lives and lifestyles.
That meant significantly changing production values as well. “Earlier, the treatment on our shows was loud. The accent was on good clothes, big sets and heavy makeup,” says Sukesh Motwani, head, fiction programming, Zee TV. “But lately, the viewer has evolved to the extent that they are ready to look at real settings, ready to accept characters with shades of grey. The emphasis is on directing a scene well, better performances and authentic lines. Even settings have to be authentic,” he says.
Offering variety is the name of the game. Nitin Vaidya, COO of Zee Entertainment Enterprises (ZEEL) says the audiences are enjoying watching different genres. So, every half hour slot in its 8- 11 prime time has a different kind of show from historical to soap to reality shows. That’s why Balaji’s Ekta Kapoor calls Zee the “Gujarati thali” of GECs. There’s one thread that ties shows from a historical show Jhansi ki Rani to the new soap called Mera Naam Karegi Roshan: He says their shows somewhat tend to address social issues and feature women fighting for self-esteem.
Zee’s latest show, Mera Naam Karegi Roshan is about a father who prefers his daughter over his sons to light his funeral pyre because he feels she is a more worthy inheritor of his legacy.
It’s a Sony
TV is like a serpent. You have to shed your skin every couple of months,” says Ajay Bhalwankar, head of programming at Sony Entertainment Television. Before the IPL, Sony pushed ahead its second prime time programming in a year, both of which reflected its image as a young, hip, progressive and urban channel. This time Yashraj Films made soaps for them.
These shows looked and felt like glossy, expensive Bollywood films. They included an action packed thriller, a super natural show, a romantic comedy and Mahi Way, a sitcom about a plump young woman’s struggle with weight, relationships, family and work.
Although the shows have not yet had wide appeal, they have brought a very different kind of woman in to Indian homes. Mahi goes on weekend trips with a man she is not in a relationship but would like to.
Sony’s Bhalwankar says they have had such a positioning all the while and talks about a non-Yashraj show where the lead character is from a smaller town but fights society and later becomes a politician. “Any woman, if she is inspiring, we are interested in her,” he says. “Inspiration is very important because we will create shows for the evolving woman of
So far, the new positioning has opened the landscape up in terms of taking viewers to new places and the women that fit in to that context. And it appeals to audiences in different parts of the country, where regional GECs are gaining ground. For instance, Balaji’s Kapoor says Star is strong in Gujarat and Maharashtra, Colors in North India, Sony is stronger in metros and Zee in smaller towns.
Color’s Baalika Vadhu was set in Rajasthan to connect with a market that is seldom represented in prime-time soaps. The strategy seems to have worked well so far.
Which only proves, there is no one way to define a woman — she continues to remain an amorphous entity that defies definitions.