Satyamev Jayate makes you cringe. The warts of India and human beings in general are on display, making for some uncomfortable Sunday morning viewing. Female foeticide, child abuse and dowry have been covered in the first three episodes of a 13-episode show. Going by TAM numbers and the media buzz, there is no doubt that India is watching the show and discussing it. The blend of celebrity, social issue and great research makes for compelling content.
The buzz around Satyamev Jayate also tells you that Indian TV audiences are changing. The show catches them on the cusp of this change.
Think about it. It has been more than 20 years since private television took off, over 10 years of film corporatisation, a decade of private radio stations and more than 15 years of the internet and newspaper growth. In each of these segments, the last decade has seen loads of investment coming in. This has led to more competition and variety — in distribution formats, content and pricing. This has given Indians who have long lived with one newspaper and TV channel media choices beyond their imagination. And they have sampled this varied fare for more than a decade now. Their palates, now sated with the usual, are seeking something new.
This is perhaps more true for television than for any other medium. Unlike TV, in films audiences were more than ready for the change when it came. The corporatisation of the film industry took off in 2001 with the building of India’s first few multiplexes. As large parts of India settled to a better viewing experience, they were demanding interesting films and getting them. This is reflected in the mix of popular and profitable films, which include a Dabangg with a Delhi Belly. (Note: Hindi, English, Marathi, Punjabi and Gujarati are the languages I am familiar with. So this column is limited to these markets.)
In television the journey has taken longer. The journey from Hum Log and Buniyaad in the ’80s to Tara, Banegi Apni Baat, MASH and Dynasty in the ’90s was one part of it. After Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) in 2000, the daily soap was born. Star Plus launched them to keep the KBC audience and maintain a stranglehold on prime time. That is what Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi and Kahani Ghar Ghar Kii did till their plots meandered and copies multiplied.
Till then audiences were largely happy with the fare being served to them. And all attempts at “different” programming did not take off. Some great shows such as Kagaar (Sahara One) or Bhanwar (Sony) that dealt with some of the issues that Satyamev Jayate does were not noticed — even by critics crying themselves hoarse about quality. In 2008 came Colors and Balika Vadhu. It pushed the envelope and was the harbinger of change in many ways. It also told you that audiences had changed, somewhat.
As luck would have it, around the same time technology that could help capture this change and cater to it profitably – namely digitisation – took off. Currently one-third of India’s 146 million TV homes are digital, thanks to DTH. Simply put, digitisation makes it profitable to sell niche channels or content. And this started showing in the traction that lifestyle and English entertainment channels got. While they are still small, they are among the fastest-growing, more profitable genres on television today.
Most English entertainment channels never bothered to air the latest season in India. Now they are simply bursting with new shows. Mad Men and The Graham Norton Show, among others, offer Indians a nice treat. Thanks to digitisation, entire genres – food, for example – have taken off. At last count there were 200 food shows on Indian television. My Kitchen Rules, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, Man Versus Food or Come Dine With Me, among others, are a form of reality television. And millions of Indians are watching them.
Their palates sated by TV and honed by some great quality cinema, Indian audiences were not just ready for change, but eager for it. And local channels finally got the message. Last year came Bade Acche Lagte Hain, a love story that is tickling millions of Indians. The updated KBC (Sony) and Tarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chasma (SAB) are all new and refreshing. There is now a steady stream of well-written, well-produced shows. It indicates clearly that Indian audiences have matured and the entertainment TV industry is ready to deliver to its changed palate.
It is to this audience that Star Plus has served Satyamev Jayate. So while Khan gets credit for pushing the show, the Indian viewer deserves a lot of it too.