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Coming, more reality
STAR DRAW: (From top left) Sachin Pilgaonkar, Sai and Shakti Anand in Nach Baliye and Vinod Kambli in the forthcoming
reality show, Heartbeat

They are some of the most watched programmes on television. In 2005, reality shows like Indian Idol Grand Finale (Sony Entertainment Television ' SET), Nach Baliye (Star One) and Hero Honda Sa Re Ga Ma Pa (Zee) outdid many of the popular soaps on television. Audience interest in them can be gauged by the fact that Zee’s Business Baazigar received two lakh entries out of which it shortlisted 250 candidates, with 50 making it to the jury. Niret Alva, president of Miditech, the television programme company, believes that India has a huge appetite for reality television. “We may be just on the tip of the iceberg. With changing delivery mechanisms and technology, reality shows provide the right mix of interactivity and entertainment,” he declares.

Not all agree, but producers of reality shows think that the market is big. So many more different kinds of reality shows are poised to hit the small screen. International companies like Endemol which set up shop in India in 2005 will be introducing new shows like Big Brother where 12 people who have never lived together will do so for 100 days in a fenced-off compound. Everything they do is recorded and viewers decide who will have to leave the house immediately. In another show, Shattered, 12 contestants compete for the grand prize by staying awake.

Yet another programme that’s going to hit India is Extreme Makeover ' Home Edition, where a team of designers will redesign an entire house in just seven days. The company’s Heartbeat too will appear on Star One this year. Here, a single contestant is asked questions and his heart rate is monitored. If the rate is faster than normal, he’s out. Rajesh Kamat, head of Endemol India, declines to share any further details but says that these and other programmes (the company will be developing a reality show in India and taking it abroad) are in the process of being Indianised. To be sure, the very concept of reality shows is still fuzzy. As Kamat puts it, “In India, there is still an overlap between reality and non fiction programming. This gives producers and broadcasters ample scope to innovate.” Adds Siddhartha Dasgupta, spokesman for TAM Media Research, “The concept of reality, at least for Indian viewers, is still very new. Fortunately for programme producers and broadcasters, there is no set definition of what actually is or could be a reality show.” Indeed, Miditech is listed in the Limca Book of Records as having produced the first ever reality series in India, Hospital, which looked at emergencies at New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences. Even programmes like Antakshari are considered reality shows. Today’s reality shows, of course, are vastly different from these programmes.

So you now see Prakash Mundhra, a professional in Pune who wants to open retail stores across the country that will sell only material for God’s puja on television. His idea may sound a little vague, but today he is battling for backing for his idea on Zee’s business reality show, Business Baazigar. Or Shweta Salve, the television actress, who decided to conquer her fear of reptiles by actually living with some of them in a glass box on Sony’s Fear Factor India. Hordes of people like them have been getting on to reality shows and doing bizarre things like eating cockroaches, shedding fat on television and designing dresses for a stint with Donatella Versace. Clearly, reality television shows in India are an experimental phase.

Kamat argues that reality programmes can have a celebrity and the common man (Kaun Banega Crorepati, Fear Factor), or just celebrities dealing with other celebrities (Nach Baliye), or just the common man ( Indian Idol, Sa Re Ga Ma Pa). Endemol itself has three shows on various channels: Deal Ya No Deal, KBC and Laughter Season 2.

For all the hoopla about reality shows, not all of them have fared well. The grand finale of SET’s Indian Idol 1 had a massive television rating of 14.29. In contrast, the Fame Gurukul finals on the same channel managed a rating of just 8.21. Star One’s Lakme Fashion House (which too is loosely defined as a reality show) got ratings of under 1. As TAM Media’s Dasgupta points out, “Reality shows have a low shelf life. And so it is paramount how a broadcaster works out his strategy to retain newly attracted audiences during reality shows after they end.” Kamat too says that when shows become seasonal, it becomes a tricky proposition for broadcasters to retain audiences. This may explain why programmes like Fame Gurukul and Hero Honda Sa Re Ga Ma Pa got low ratings. Kamat believes it is better for producers and broadcasters to space out shows rather than experience audience fatigue.

The big question really is whether Indian audiences are ready for the new kinds of reality shows. Deepak Saigal, senior vice president, content, Star Network, thinks they aren’t. Says he: “India is not a matured market where shows like Big Brother will work.” The advertising industry too has some reservations about the new reality shows. Says M. G. Parameswaran, executive director, FCB-ULKA, “The problem with shows like Big Brother is that complex tasks may not be suitable for a mass audience. They may be suitable for a niche channel. Which is why, if you had a KBC on Star Plus, the Mastermind India was on BBC World.”

Ashish Kaul, vice president, brand communications, Zee Network, thinks that the scope for reality shows in general entertainment channels will be limited and so song and dance programmes will be preferred to them. According to Parameswaran, broadcasters need to have a blend of two. As he says, “There is potential for reality but you got to make it entertaining.”

But reality show makers and production houses reply that good shows will always find audiences if they’re packaged well. As the debate rages, the answer to the question as to whether reality shows will go down well with audiences here will emerge only later. Watch this space, a year from now.

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