Television Industry in a Slump With the Lockdown

There’s no good time for a pandemic to strike but for the Indian television industry, there really couldn’t have been a worse time. The industry, that’s experiencing a slowdown with lower ad revenues and shrinking budgets, is now worried about audiences shifting loyalties to OTT platforms and losing a whole quarter’s business.

In the week preceding 18 March when all television production was halted, creators of some of the most loved daily soaps went into hyper-drive. The idea was to ‘bank’ as many episodes as possible. “Daily shows bank only about one week’s worth of episodes at any point, maximum of two weeks. This is to ensure that we can gauge audience reactions to the storyline as it unfolds and make the necessary changes,” explains Chloe Qureshi, Creative Director at Balaji Telefilms. At the time when the lockdown came into effect, Balaji had six daily shows – Kumkum Bhagya, Kundali Bhagya, Kasautii Zindagii Kay, Yeh Hai Chahatein, Pavitra Bhagya and Naagin: Bhagya Ka Zehreela Khel – on-air and only a week’s worth of episodes banked.

Something Old, Something New

Since the lockdown went into effect and television channels ran out of new content to air, they have had to think of alternatives fast. It was an easy decision to fall back on re-telecasting old and recent hits to keep the audience engaged and entertained. National broadcaster Doordarshan is experiencing a resurgence of sorts after it started beaming Ramayana and Mahabharata twice a day. Zee TV is airing the Prachi Desai-Ram Kapoor hit Kasamh Se while Colors has brought back the 13th edition of its tent-pole show Bigg Boss among other shows.

A scene from Ramayana, which first aired on Doordarshan in 1987.

And then, there are recaps of the popular shows that were on-air until the lockdown. “With no fresh daily content being produced, we are looking at various alternatives and innovations to run the wheel of content even during unprecedented times. To keep viewers connected with the characters of their favourite shows in the absence of new content, we have introduced a unique programming approach wherein we are showcasing vignettes providing anecdotes from the lives of the characters,” says Manisha Sharma, Chief Content Officer, Hindi Mass Entertainment, Viacom18.

There are less than a handful of new shows like Star Plus’ Maharaja Ki Jai Ho, a sci-fi comedy series set in Hastinapur, the capital of the Kuru kingdom in Mahabharat. And, Zee TV’s new roster of three made-for-OTT finite series from AltBalaji – Karle Tu Bhi Mohabbat, Baarish and Kehne Ko Humsafar. Star Plus was to launch Anupamaa, starring Rupali Ganguly and Sudhanshu Pandey on a prime time slot on March 16. “At the last moment, the channel and I decided that it makes sense to postpone the show for when the lockdown ends. It was in everyone’s best interest,” explains producer Rajan Shahi. He has two other very popular shows – Yeh Rishta Kya Kehlata Hai and Yeh Rishtey Hain Pyaar Ke – that have been forced into an indefinite, unplanned hiatus.

Filming in Isolation

In early April, Sony dropped a short film titled Family that featured the likes of Amitabh Bachchan, Rajnikanth, Mammootty and Priyanka Chopra. It was conceptualized and virtually directed by ad man Prasoon Pandey completely during isolation. The Family Man actor Shreyas Dhanwanthary has made her directorial debut with the ErosNow micro-series A Viral Wedding: Made in Lockdown. The series has 8 episodes of less than 10 mins each and stars the likes of Amol Parashar, Sharib Hashmi and Mohit Raina.

(L to R) A poster of A Viral Wedding: Made In Lockdown, series director Shreya Dhanwanthary. 

Both these makers have shown that it is possible to create content in the time of self-distancing. Daily soaps though, creators insist, are a different beast. For the recap episodes of both these shows, Shahi has lead actors shoot links from their homes that were edited together.

" “Shooting in isolation is still possible if it’s a one-off but doing this for five-six episodes every week for months on end is madness. Both the examples that we’ve had have been for short content whereas in a daily soap you have a cast of 15 actors and the shows are 22-25 mins long.”" - Rajan Shahi, Producer

“Executing this for actors sitting in their homes all over the country and with directors having no control is just impractical,” he says and quickly adds, “But never say never. The future is so uncertain right now”.

At Colors though, they’ve had some success with this innovative way of filming. “In an industry first, we have also launched an on-air series of gags featuring the talented Bharti Singh and Harsh Limbachhiya titled Hum, Tum aur Quarantine shot entirely from home,” says Sharma. Apart from sharing their quarantine stories, the couple also interviews popular faces from television.

Virtual Reality

Unscripted non-fiction content makers have their own set of challenges and solutions for working around the lockdown. The finale of Star Pravah’s Marathi show Me Honar Superstar was meant to be shot on March 18-19 but was cancelled. Similarly, Bigg Boss Malayalam on Asianet was cut short by about four weeks. “Instead of 14 weeks, we stopped the show at 10,” says Abhishek Rege, CEO Endemol that produces both shows. He expected Endemol’s two big properties – Bigg Boss Hindi and Fear Factor: Khatron Ke Khiladi to not be affected by the lockdown ‘if it ends by June’. “Our reality shows require a lot of pre-production and casting. It will take us about four to six weeks to get into shooting whenever the lockdown ends,” adds Rege.

Makers of reality shows aren’t letting the lockdown affect their shows too much though. They are tapping into digital gateways to set the ball rolling. From Kaun Banega Crorepati 12 to Roadies and Dance Deewane, shows have rolled out 100% digital screening processes for contestants. Like Amitabh Bachchan, the KBC host says in the promo, ‘Har cheez ko break lag sakta hai… sapno ko nahi’.

Know Your Audience

Once the lockdown ends, the biggest challenge facing both production houses and broadcasters would be gauging what the audience wants to see. “This pandemic will take a big toll on everyone and could possibly impact their mindsets and emotions. I think tastes will change. There is going to be greater awareness of the importance of family and relationship; of the fact that we can survive with little,” says Shahi. In his view, shows will need to ‘resonate with what’s happening around us and not be set in a fairyland’.

Since its launch in early February this year, Barrister Babu on Colors was steadily gaining a loyal fan base.

"“As the drama progressed, we knew that the audience would be hooked but now that there’s been this forced lockdown, whenever we start again, we’ll have to come back with a bang. It’s like going back to the beginning of the race.”" - Shashi Mittal, Writer-Producer of Barrister Babu

Qureshi, of Balaji agrees, “We can’t start the stories from where we were forced to stop. We’ll have to start like it’s a new show,” she says. She also believes that it is possible that television could have lost a percentage of its loyal audience to OTT platforms during the lockdown. “The larger audience in the metros that used to watch these shows has moved on to Alt Balaji, Hotstar and Voot because there is so much content. We saw the shift to these platforms coming but now it’s become very obvious. Women in metros who were watching Kumkum Bhagya until now would have moved on to Kehne Ko Humsafar Hain on AltBalaji,” she adds.

The New ‘Normal’

As with all aspects of our life, how television shows – both scripted and non-scripted – are shot will have to go through a huge change. In countries like Sweden and Denmark that have resumed shoots, new rules include a maximum of 50 people on set, sequential working of departments and regular temperature checks. Here too, makers will have to put into effect new procedures that go beyond the basics of wearing masks at all times and sanitising.

A large part of this would involve paring down the crew on a television set. At any given point, most dailies have a crew of between 100-150 people cramped into a set. In the post-COVID-19 world, this would need to change.

“We will have to cut out a lot of people from sets. That doesn’t mean that we will be sacking people but re-aligning things so there isn’t too much crowding on a set at a given time,” says Rege.

For soaps, it will all start with writers writing scenes that don’t involve too many actors. There’s also been talk of actors doing their make-up at home but Shahi is not sure how practical that idea is. “We could also look at not doing too many combination scenes that require lots of actors in one space or maybe we can cheat and make it seem like everyone is in the same space together. Our survival depends on being able to produce good content while staying safe,” he says.

The financial implications of this lockdown will also eventually affect the kind of shows production houses can make. There are already rumours of non-performing shows being axed during this hiatus and fresh negotiations to trim the budgets of those that will continue. Shahi believes that post-lockdown, producers will not have extravagant sets and outdoor shoots. “It’s going to be a chain reaction, I am sure the broadcasters are not getting ads. Hence production houses will not get the same budgets like we used to. We just have to make sure that people down the chain; especially the daily wage earner and background actors aren’t very adversely affected. It will take the industry a long time to come back to ‘normal’,” he explains.

While the industry is hoping to return to sets by the end of June, there is still no clarity when the lockdown will actually end. The state government of Karnataka though has announced that shoots can resume on 25 May. Understandably, their counterparts in Mumbai would be watching their process closely. After all, they are itching to once again tell stories of ambition, love and family.

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