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Making of the Indian Idol

The elegant Taj President in Mumbai's Cuffe Parade hasn't witnessed mayhem of the kind before. There are the usual celebrities aboard, but the young men and women crowding the hotel lobby are not eyeing the fourth floor, where Indian cricketers are putting up. The autograph hunters don't have much time for Ganguly's boys ' currently in Mumbai for the Challenger Series. They are invading the third floor which houses India's neo-celebs ' the remaining three Indian Idols.

Since December, the third floor of the five-star hotel has had no peace. It has been virtually converted into a music studio. Young singers rehearse in the alley at odd hours. Sounds of electronic keyboards and old melodies emanate from rooms where music director Raju Singh conducts group sessions. Camera crews from Sony TV snoop around to catch what are called 'reality bites' ' the tense contestants, the smiles of the winners and the tears of the losers who have to leave the hotel. The room phones and mobiles constantly ring with fan calls. The excitement hasn't diminished a bit as Indian Idol enters the final rounds in the next two weeks. By March 6, one of the three youngsters will be crowned the Indian Idol, bringing the TV juggernaut to a halt.

Indian Idol, being aired on Sony TV, is the talk of the town. Essentially a singing competition, what makes the programme different is that the contest is judged by viewers who send in messages ' on mobiles and on a special landline ' in support of their candidates. The one with the least number of votes is booted out of the contest every week.

Though the three-member jury ' choreographer-turned-director Farah Khan, music director Anu Malik, and playback singer Sonu Nigam ' are there to heighten the visual drama, the real jury of the contest is out there ' hundreds and thousands of TV viewers.

According to TAM Research, the programme got 84 per cent new viewers for Sony, and brought in more audiences in the 15-24 years age group. It also improved the percentage of male viewers watching TV. According to Sony, the final stages of the show recorded 1.7 crore votes.

The Indian version of UK's Pop Idol and equally popular American Idol was launched in 10 cities in October 2004. Over 21,000 aspiring playback singers auditioned for the talent hunt, out of whom 129 were picked for the final rounds. There were finally 11 contestants in December, and now there are three.

The three ' and the eight singers who lost in the last two months ' have become instant celebrities. 'If I switch on my mobile phone, it rings virtually every minute. I can't do anything else. People have been calling me from all over ' places I have never been to,' says 17-year-old Mumbai boy Rahul Vaidya chatting in room 309 which has been his home since December.

Vaidya, bespectacled Amit Sana from Bhilai and Abhijit Sawant, considered by many as the dark horse who could win, can't believe the excitement that they have evoked. Sawant's father, Shridhar Sawant, who works with Bombay Municipal Corporation, was felicitated by the Mumbai mayor for his son's success. Sana has just heard that a girl from Calcutta suffered a head injury worrying about how he'd fare in the contest. 'I am really stunned. Is this for real' says 21-year-old Sana, a SAIL engineer's son.

People point to Shridhar Sawant, marking him out as Abhijit's father. The 24-year-old boy from Mumbai has been getting a lot of fan calls as well. 'When I sang badly in one of the rounds, a girl from Jodhpur took the trouble to find my number and tell me what I should do to do well. Another left a message on my hotel phone saying she is fasting for my success,' he says.

The last time Indian television witnessed excitement of the kind was when Amitabh Bachchan held audiences across the age spectrum spellbound with his baritone antics on Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC).

The TAM Peoplemeter ratings, however, show that Indian Idol was never near KBC when it came to the number of eyeballs, and some of the other popular programmes greatly outpace the Sony show in ratings. The programme on Sony TV opened at a rating of 5.8, and hovered between 5.5 and 6.8, the data till January 29 showed. The saas-bahu saga, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, still commands a rating of 11.5 in cable and satellite homes, while DD serials monopolise all top 10 across all TV homes with ratings of 9 to 11. Indian Idol is among the top 10 programmes Sony has in the top 100 programmes on Indian TV, but compared with Star's 54 programmes it stands nowhere.

But, cold TV statistics won't reflect the programme's popularity, especially among the younger audiences. 'Television has become much more competitive than it was in 2001 when KBC was on air. A rating between 5 and 6 is good for a programme,' says a TV analyst.

Anil Wanvari, founder and CEO of Indiantelevision.com, calls a comparison between KBC and Indian Idol inappropriate for both have different audience profiles. 'Indian Idol is not totally about family audiences the way KBC was. KBC was about a person who could win Rs 1 crore based on his/her knowledge. Indian Idol is about allowing viewers to participate in the success of one singer among millions. It is about giving one individual a chance to win,' says Wanvari, who organises the only credible TV awards, Indian Telly awards.

According to Wanvari, the singular reason for Indian Idol's popularity is its appeal to basic human emotions. 'It works at the aspirational level of ordinary masses. It takes a zero and makes it a hero. It captures the struggle each talented singer went through, and engages with the entire palette of human emotions and psyche,' says Wanvari, adding that the original international concept of the show has worked successfully in every country it was introduced to. 'I haven't seen a market where it has failed to work,' he says. (see box on American Idol)

Marketing and packaging of the show has played a key invisible role in reaching out to people. Sony Entertainment Television adopted what it calls the 360 degree marketing campaign, by aggressively promoting the show on all available platforms ' print, radio, TV, Internet, outdoors, direct marketing and consumer connect activities. It floated an Indian Idol website offering various promotions and contests. It released the Indian Idol CD featuring their popular theme song, Yaad Ayenge Yeh Pal.

Says Tarun Katial, executive vice president and business Head, Sony Entertainment Television, 'The show is about real people, real emotions and real drama. The marketing innovations have played a huge role in driving the frenzy around the contestants.'

But, viewers' voting patterns have also angered many who felt that some of the best singers were shown the door as fans voted en masse for their favourite singers, often irrespective of how they sang. Says Hetal Varia, a FYBA Ruparel College student from Mumbai, 'My favourites are Abhijit Sawant and Amit Sana. But, many people seem to vote out of sympathy for singers who are not doing well, and others like Rahul Saxena (a former contestant, uniformly praised by the three judges) who were more deserving were voted out.'

The contest is now reaching its climax. The ultimate winner of the Indian Idol contest will be signed up for a three year contract with Sony Entertainment TV worth Rs 1 crore. He will also get to cut an album with a leading music company.

'Being an Indian Idol is a rare honour,' says Rahul Vaidya. Money and fame is ephemeral, but to earn the adulation of the whole nation is more valuable for me.'

Next week, all 11 finalists would be back on the third floor of Taj President for the grand finale. Three weeks from now, the Indian Idol would be announced.

The week after that, the Taj would be back to normal ' though possibly not for long, for the next edition of Indian Idol would be back later this year. Once again, young singers would croon in the alley at all odd hours.

How it began

The original Idols format was conceived in the UK by Simon Fuller of 19TV, Simon Cowell of BMG and FremantleMedia as a televised search for a new national solo pop idol.

The UK version Pop Idol was launched in 2001. Since then, the Idols concept has rolled into 28 countries including the US, Canada, Germany, Australia, Belgium, Malayasia, Indonesia and Singapore among others.

Over two lakh people have auditioned for the Idols series worldwide.

It has been watched by 110 million viewers so far, and over 500 million votes have been cast on the show. The UK Pop Idol recorded the highest vote of nine million calls over two hours in the 2002 finals.

The series has launched the music career of 33 new solo singers.

The American Idol has completed four seasons and remains one of the most watched shows in
the US.

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