Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

India is less cynical than the West while accepting TED-like content on TV: Curators

After attempting to break silos and free the power of ideas around the world, TED is confident of doing the same in India by experimenting with a new format on television

Published: Oct 10, 2017 04:54:15 PM IST
Updated: Oct 10, 2017 05:35:41 PM IST

India is less cynical than the West while accepting TED-like content on TV: Curators Juliet Blake, head of television and curator of special projects and Chris Anderson, the owner and curator of TED

"There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come."

These words of French poet and novelist Victor Hugo have rung true through generations, and continue to be relevant at present. Most success stories – entrepreneurial or otherwise – often germinate through a simple idea, which helps solve problems.
One of the largest media platforms in the world for sharing such “ideas worth spreading,” has been TED; and it seeks to attempt something in India, which it has never attempted before. The nonprofit global community – which derives its names from the acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design (the three themes which it originally dealt with, though its scope has expanded since) – is well-known for its viral online videos (also called TED Talks) featuring some of the world’s best-known thinkers and achievers in different fields, as well as an annual conference it organises. 

Later this year, TED will join hands with one of India’s largest broadcast networks, Star India, and Bollywood icon Shah Rukh Khan to launch ‘TED Talks India: Nayi Soch’, a televised format of TED, where India’s well-known and little-known personalities will share the power of their ideas, mostly in Hindi.

Airing a show featuring thought-stimulating content is a bold bet for Star TV. By the chairman and CEO of Star India, Uday Shankar’s own admission, TED Talks: Nayi Soch was born out of Star’s desire to challenge the stereotype that “deeply creative, intellectual and thought stimulating content can’t be accepted” as entertainment television. Star and Shankar are hoping that the quality of content on offer and Khan’s innate wit and screen presence will draw audiences to this new show.

In an interview with Forbes India, Chris Anderson, the owner and curator of TED, and Juliet Blake, head of television and curator of special projects feel that India was the idea place for their platform to experiment with a television show, since the country “was less cynical,” when it came to accepting TED-like content on TV, compared to the US. 

Edited excerpts:
A lot of people and organisations have tried to create content around thought-stimulating ideas, but not all have been as successful as TED. Why do you think TED Talks are so popular?
Anderson: The devil is in the details. TED is not just about motivational speeches, which can get boring beyond a point. There is a huge variety of content across a range of subjects around the world – from business and entrepreneurship to social issues, invention, design and art. TED is all about bringing together knowledge, which sits inside silos most of the time, with only small groups of people talking to each other. TED is trying to break the walls of those silos down and help people make their best ideas accessible to others.

How will the Indian television show format be different from the online TED Talks?
Anderson: The show is in a different language (Hindi) and TV has its own demands. But what has been surprising to us is how much is the same between the two formats. Star and Uday have always insisted that the show shouldn’t be dumbed down to make it popular. What is exciting for us is that the show feels authentic to the TED brand. TED isn’t about one talk at a time. It is a series of four or five talks in a row that have been carefully chosen and clustered around a theme. They aren’t the same but they connect and build one each other. You are going to see something very similar on the Indian show. And the way those connections happen through little bits of magic orchestrated by Shah Rukh Khan are quite special.

Why did you choose India as the country to do a local language TV show, based on TED, in?  
Anderson: What excites us here is that India feels viscerally different from the West at present. In the West, people are quite cynical and angry at the moment. In India, there is a much bigger commitment to learning and people understand the power of knowledge. The idea of a major mainstream TV network offering lifelong learning in a powerful form for free is pretty exciting and we feel it is a great fit for India. 

Blake: This has been a real collaboration through meeting of great minds. Chris and I sat down around a year back and discussed the themes that we would like to address through the TV show. And then I came to India and spoke with Gaurav (Gaurav Banerjee, president and head of content studio at Star India) and Uday. I have to say Uday is a visionary. This is a risky show for him to do, but he has embraced it in such a major way.

TED also has various local versions of its platform through TEDx communities, including here in India. Do you think such large scale proliferation of the brand takes away from the sheen of TED?
Anderson: Giving away your brand can be risky. The key to doing it is through tools and rules. As far as rules are concerned, there are things that TEDx organisers can and cannot do. And then there are the tools, through which we have made great investments to encourage people to make great events and showed them how to do it. This has meant that our little organisation of 200 people has suddenly got 3,500 events happening all over the world through the year.

Blake: We look at TED and TEDx as a wonderful ecosystem where we have access to all these people who have experienced TED, and who we can call upon to get involved in projects. I can tell you that we have at least seven TEDx speakers who were chosen to speak on the TV program and I chose a TEDx organizer, who we had trained earlier, to be a speaker coach. The TEDx Gateway here in Mumbai is one of the largest in India. Its organizer helped us bring in an audience for the TV show.

If the TV show in India is successful, how will that influence TED’s television formats in the future and what are the other TED formats that can be explored in India?
Anderson: If this works out as well as we hope it will, definitely we will try and do it (televised formats) elsewhere. It represents an extraordinary expansion of TED’s mission. We are not in this to make money. We are in it to spread ideas around the world and TV can still do that at a scale that even the internet can’t reach. As far as other formats for India is concerned, we will have to wait and see. There is some interesting work going on.

TED is a not-for-profit concern and Star India is a commercial broadcaster. How do your interests reconcile? 
Anderson: We had long conversations with them and I am not sure Star is doing it for the money. I don’t even know how much money they will make out of it. I think they are doing it because they believe they have an important role to play in India. Coming into this, we thought all the fights are going to be around dumbing it down for television and bringing in an element of outrage to the show to garner ratings. But that hasn’t been the case.

Blake: The other thing is that we would never allow a TED Talk to be interrupted by a commercial break, or by a sponsor logo going over the screen. There were a lot of things that we needed to talk to Uday and his team about and they have been marvelous partners.