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Indian TV needs rethink on advertising model

In India the small screen now dwarfs the big screen for mass appeal as Bollywood stars court television audiences to promote their latest offerings.

A scene from the popular soap opera Na Aana Is Des Ladoo is shot at its set in Goregaon, Mumbai.
A scene from the popular soap opera Na Aana Is Des Ladoo is shot at its set in Goregaon, Mumbai.

The blinding glare of spotlights falls on a middle-aged woman in a bright gypsy skirt and tribal jewellery.

She is sitting on the floor, hunched over a body, staring dramatically at her hand smeared with blood. A voice rises in the background, asking her if she should let the killer go unpunished.

The question unsettles her. She stares towards the camera that is panning to frame her.

"Cut!" screams the director, slumped on a couch nearby, observing the performance on a video monitor.

The body gets up and walks out. A troop of costume and make-up artists swing into action, touching up the actress's lip gloss, replenishing the red paint on her hand. The light and camera crew shift the filming equipment and projectors for the next scene.

It is just another day on the set of Na Aana Is Des Ladoo, a popular daily soap on the Hindi entertainment channel Colors, which is a joint venture between the US media giant Viacom and India's Network 18.


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The soap revolves around a tyrannical matriarch in a feudal society where female abortion is rampant. It is among the top 10 Hindi soap operas on television, according to TAM, a viewership ratings agency in Mumbai.

Such soaps make up nearly 60 per cent of the programming on Hindi-language general entertainment channels (GECs).

There are only about 10 channels in this genre, slightly more than 2 per cent of the total 485 registered private television channels beaming into India. But they are still considered to be one of the largest and most popular segments of the country's multibillion-rupee TV industry.

TAM says the GEC share of viewers grew to 29.6 per cent last year from 22.6 per cent in 2007. Together, they command about 30 per cent of the 100 billion rupee (Dh8.26bn) advertising expenditure on TV, the media investment agency VivaKi Exchange says.

In the past decade, hundreds of television channels have arrived in India, with its large advertising market from a nation of 1.21 billion consumers. Hundreds more are expected in the next few years, analysts say.

Only 112 million households, representing half of India's families, own TVs but with growing incomes there is a large, unsaturated market for television sales.

Last year, India's media and entertainment industry registered growth of 11 per cent over the previous year, touching 652bn rupees in revenue, says a report released last month by the federation of Indian chambers of commerce and industry (FICCI) and KPMG. That number is expected to almost double by 2015.

Advertising revenues from India's TV industry are expected to touch 214bn rupees by that year, while subscription revenues could rise to 416bn rupees.

"The small screen in India is bigger than the big screen," says Anil Wanvari, the founder and chief executive of Indiantelevision.com. "In terms of revenue, television dwarfs both Bollywood and regional cinema."

TV also overshadows cinema in mass appeal. Bollywood personalities make regular appearances on Hindi GEC shows to publicise their films.

This year, the Bollywood actresses Rani Mukherjee and Vidya Balan performed short cameos on Na Aana Is Des Ladoo to promote their latest release, No One Killed Jessica.

Last year, the actress Mallika Sherawat appeared on the same show to perform a song-and-dance item from her film Hiss just days before it was released.

But the TV industry's potential for growth is under-exploited, Mr Wanvari says. It is heavily dependent on advertising as compared with subscription. It derives more than 80 per cent of its revenues through ads.

To survive, the industry must evolve subscription models by raising the average rate of revenue per user, Mr Wanvari says.

The report Indian Entertainment and Media Outlook released last year by PricewaterhouseCoopers points out the growth of Hindi GECs was stagnant for the previous two years because of flat growth in advertising revenue.

"It will become imperative for media companies to reset their business models and build greater focus on profitability," says Rajesh Jain, the head of the media and entertainment division at KPMG.

In the short term, the sector is ripe for consolidation, experts say.

There were 26 merger and acquisition (M&A) deals worth US$261 million (Dh958.5m) in India's media and entertainment sector in 2009, KPMG says. Over the next two years, the sector could receive between $600m and $1bn through M&A.

In late 2009, NDTV Imagine, a loss-making Hindi GEC, was bought by Turner International in a deal worth $126.5m.

India became Turner's largest revenue market in the Asia-Pacific region.

The sector is also criticised for its poor content regulation. In recent years a rush of reality programmes, which are mostly sassier versions of western versions, have been dominating ratings like never before.

These shows are accused of titillating audiences with sensational footage and voyeuristic content, challenging taboos in a largely conservative society.

India's information and broadcasting ministry says such shows are "vulgar" and unsuitable for prime-time viewing.

Last year, a show on NDTV Imagine called Rakhi ka Insaaf, or Rakhi's Justice - the Indian version of the US programme Judge Judy - hosted by the popular Bollywood dancer Rakhi Sawant, ignited fresh controversy.

The show offered to settle disputes between squabbling couples but one of its contestants committed suicide allegedly because Sawant mockingly called him "impotent" on the show.

Indian parliamentarians last year objected to Sach ka Saamna, or Confronting the Truth - modelled after the The Moment of Truth - for assaulting Indian culture.

The show, aired on the Rupert Murdoch-owned cable channel Star TV, aired the most embarrassing, intimate details of participants.

But attempts to regulate reality programming have not worked. An Indian court dismissed outright the move by parliamentarians to block Sach ka Saamna.

The government's plan to move Bigg Boss, the Indian version of Big Brother on Colors, to a more adult timeslot of 11pm was rejected by the court.

"What may be offensive to you may not be offensive to someone else," says Mr Wanvari. "Broadcasters must clearly classify content that is adult-orientated or that involves parental guidance.

"But other than that, leave it to the viewer to decide. He is in charge of his remote control."