Reality bites

Battling with huge production costs, do reality shows really make for a reasonable bet for TV channels? 

If you find yourself sympathising with the underdog on your favourite talent hunt or searching fervently for the remote as 9 pm approaches so that you don’t miss a second of the highlights from the Bigg Boss house, you can congratulate yourself for having been successfully sucked into the vortex of reality programming. Reality television and its crazed fan following is not new to the Indian television scene — since the entry of private television networks in the ’90s, we have been subject to contestants on several musical shows such as Antakshari or Sa Re Ga Ma Pa battling it out for fun or film contracts. In the early ’00s, the talent hunts got more intense, with interactive concepts such as live eliminations and voting via SMS added into the mix. The dose of drama only got heavier with MTV Roadies and Bigg Boss emerging on the screen, showing us exactly how ugly ‘real’ life can be. 

Deepak Dhar, CEO, Endemol India, which has reproduced top reality show formats such as Big Brother and Fear Factor across markets, says, “Earlier, reality TV was all about song-and-dance talent hunts broadcast on weekends. Over time, this format lost its popularity, though such shows do pop up from time to time. Instead, it is now unscripted shows that are more successful, thanks to the element of freshness and changing cast each season — this keeps viewers engaged.”

Industry experts say that though the brand value of talent hunt shows such as Boogie Woogie or Sa Re Ga Ma Pa helps them retain a formidable viewership, not all shows built along similar lines survive, as seen with the likes of Indian Idol. In an industry that is expected to grow at a CAGR of 15-16% in 2015 and is currently valued at over ₹40,000 crore, voyeurism seems to lead the ratings, with the token saas-bahu dramas bringing up the rear. Even the introduction of syndicated shows from Pakistan on Zee’s Zindagi hasn’t led to a drop in the ratings of reality shows on air. But with budgets shooting through the roof, can TV channels sustain the already abysmal margins they have been making through the reality format?

 All about the money

The answer: probably not. Over the past five years, budgets for headliners such as Bigg Boss have been raised by the season to keep up with higher production costs and licensing and celebrity fees. Hema Malik, COO, Lodestar Universal, a media consulting firm, says, “Reality shows are not financially viable for most television networks. Of course, some talent-based shows such as Dance India Dance on Zee TV don’t have huge associated costs, as they don’t feature pricey names from the film industry. But, despite the costs involved, shows such as Bigg Boss or Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) are important for networks, thanks to the amount of buzz and ratings they generate, keeping their host channels in the news. This is why they continue to flourish. Fiction shows alone cannot keep the buzz alive for long.” 

And Bollywood has played a key role in keeping this buzz alive. In the past, celebrities used to associate television stints with a loss in credibility but that changed with the success of the first season of the Amitabh Bachchan-frontlined KBC in 2000. Now, film stars are so ubiquitous on television that celebrity costs account for nearly 25-30% of the total budget of reality shows.

Dhar concurs, “Of course, investment is generally high within the reality format. But, of the budget we build for each show — including licensing fees, set design budgets and 360-degree marketing — celebrity costs account for the biggest chunk.” Saurabh Yagnik, EVP and business head, AXN, which syndicates several international shows, puts things in perspective.

“In the US, scripted shows are more expensive because of the sets and star cast needed to fit the seasonal formats of most sitcoms and dramas. In comparison, television production is relatively cheaper in India in terms of set design and celebrities. We have to keep these points in mind while comparing different markets,” he says.

Radio silence

But are these challenges steep enough to discourage networks from continuing with reality shows? Again, the answer is, probably not. Says Yagnik, “There is a need that we are catering to — the audience wants a good mix of reality shows and fiction programming. We need to keep changing according to the changing tastes of the audience and produce diverse content.” Jehil Thakkar, head of media, KPMG India, says, “Be it GECs or non-GECs, the larger part of television programming has become reality-based. A big star attached to a format like Bigg Boss pays off for the network. A season-based reality show does as well as a top-five show in terms of viewership.”

Adds Dhar, “We know we have a winner at hand when we have the right channel partner in place and a format that has the potential to appeal to everyone. Besides, every channel needs varied content. Fiction shows help channels maintain familiarity, while reality shows give channels the spikes in viewership and attention that they desperately need.”

Of course, there are several challenges that could bring reality shows down from their pedestal of top ratings. Foremost among these is the fact that ad rates for reality shows are nearly three times those for fiction shows. Industry sources claim that a 10-second spot on the current season of Bigg Boss costs anywhere between ₹3.5 lakh-4 lakh, most of which goes towards covering operational costs of the show. In this scenario, the slightest dip in ratings could push advertisers to pull out funding, making production — and future seasons — unviable.

Yagnik, however, says that it is not reality shows alone that attract advertiser interest. Apart from the real-life controversies caused by the reel-life broadcasts of reality shows, competition from newer formats and overseas syndication is also challenging the existence of reality television in India. How long, then, before television networks realise that reality shows are — financially, at least — a risky proposition? For now, the nearly 15% y-o-y rise in production cost levels has networks rattled. Then again, they have realised that the easier way to gain ad revenue to cover costs is by luring advertisers to a fail-proof, steady-TRP format like reality TV. The key, then, is for channels to find bankable reality formats and milk them till the cows come home. 

Stay tuned

Which is why even newer channels are adopting the reality format, like upcoming channel &TV’s reality show featuring Shahrukh Khan. Explains Thakkar, “Even newer channels such as Rishtey and LifeOK have adopted the reality show format. As far as negative coverage or controversies are concerned, TV networks realise that shows are not standalone ventures and spikes in TRPs pay off monetarily in the long run.”

Adds Malik, “With shows based on niche themes bringing in newer audiences and the production values of fiction series being improved, there is enough competition for reality shows. Networks will have to clean up their acts if they are to compete with soaps such as Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Yudh and the Ashutosh Gowariker-directed Everest. As for controversies, any coverage is good coverage for a channel.” 

Dhar, however, feels that the pay-off has to be worth it, both for the network and the producer. “For us, pricing the show right is key to making it attractive for the network. Keeping the market and advertisers in mind, we need to reach a price that is financially viable for us and the network.”

While audiences dream of the day when Indian television programming is more than just soaps bubbling forth from the idiot box, for now, networks are content with the ‘real life’ they broadcast on television screens across the country. As the flashbulbs die down at the end of the night and you turn the TV off, your favourite channel is glad to have you hooked, whether to real or reel stories. 


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