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United we stand

Ronnie Screwvala has a spring in his step. The Sydenham College alumnus who 'started cable television in India in 1981', is today at the helm of an entertainment conglomerate producing about Rs 1.5 billion worth of software. His company UTV is spreading its wings with films like Lakshya, Hyderabad Blues 2 , Swades and D on one hand and the launch of India's first children's channel in Hindi, Hungama, on the other.

'There was only Doordarshan when we started. We had a control room in each building where video cassettes would be played,' he recalls. It was the hotels where the trend caught on. But unlike today's 24x7 coverage, cable programmes then had a span of 5 pm to 11 pm.

In 1992, Zee arrived. 'They started the soap operas. Also, while DD started with 13 episodes and expanded to 26, Zee rolled out 52-episode serials. These would be bi-weekly or even daily.' UTV had been born a year ago and was doing well with programmes like Mathemagic Show and Lifeline. In 1995, the afternoon band was introduced for women. 'Shanti, a daily soap, found a loyal viewership.' The next watershed, according to Screwvala, was STAR TV going Hindi in 2000. Prime time, earlier restricted till 10 pm, now ruled from 8 to 11.30 pm.

'With more channels coming in, there has been a fragmentation of viewership, but this has led to increased numbers,' he points out. Specialised viewing will remain the order of the day, he predicts.

Screwvala, who has steered UTV into both distribution and production of movies by pioneering the studio model concept in south Asia, is equally forthcoming in tracing trends on the big screen. 'Changes came in 2000 in two vital areas ' the audience and the movie-makers.' Screwvala recalls how films flopped for 18 months at a stretch. 'The rejection was a wake-up call, forcing film-makers to focus on scripts.'

More films are being made today. 'But the viewer,' says Screwvala, 'has become more choosy. So a film has to be on a canvas big enough to draw them to the hall.'

The UTV boss spells out two mantras that the industry needs to chant' longer gestation period and more interactivity among makers, marketers and distributors. 'People have been so secretive that a film (like the much-hyped LoC Kargil) would be shown to others three-four days before release. That way, neither is the campaign planned nor does the distributor understand whether the film needs 50 copies or 200.'

Films from the UTV stable ' there is a steady flow with Vishal Bharadwaj, Prakash Jha, Chandan Arora, Ram Gopal Varma and Milan Luthria wielding the megaphone ' are going for feedback on the finished product.

'An average film has a few things that the audience doesn't like. That decides whether it works at the marquee or not. So, feedback is vital,' signs off Screwvala.

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