The three-week lockdown is turning into a bit of a celebration for television with a stream of old classics making a comeback on the small screen. However, there could be a more practical reason behind this pivot to reruns: the Indian television industry has literally run out of stock of new episodes. Interestingly, this is also a Catch-22 situation, because research firms like Nielsen are predicting a 60 per cent jump in media consumption with people stuck at home. This could be the best time for television, but the industry is struggling to produce new content.
The situation is dire for a lot of channel and serials. For instance, Asianet’s signature Malayalam comic strip video, Munshi, is not being produced for the first time in two decades. Similarly, popular Telugu serials ‘Abhishekam’ and ‘Aadade Aadharam’ on ETV Telugu will go off air for the first time since 2008-09.
The ten-member team of Munshi works from a studio near Asianet’s headquarters in Thiruvananthapuram, picking a subject from the day’s important issue. “With the rapidly changing newscape, we need to work very fast. We usually start our work by 3 pm and wrap up by 5 pm. The last episode aired on March 21 discussed the Janatha Curfew,” says director Anil Banerjee.
The Hindi soaps industry in Mumbai is also hit hard. But the spin, as Manisha Sharma, the Chief Content Officer of Hindi mass entertainment at Colors, put in a recent statement is that the channels want to ensure that in these “social distancing times”, they provide “wholesome entertainment for the entire family”. Her statement added, “To drive away your lockdown blues, we are presenting dedicated blocks for comedy, drama, romance to give you the best of the best content. As we all try to get ahead of the pandemic, we want to continue to be your companion for everything entertainment.”
On air that translates to reruns of shows like Belan Wali Bahu, Bhaag Bakool Bhaag and Bigg Boss 13, mixed with the current line up. At Zee TV, the plan is to air ALTBalaji’s web series Kehne Ko Humsafar Hai, Karrle Tu Bhi Mohabbat and Baarish on its prime time even as old shows like Brahmarakshak, Kasamh Se, Jamai Raja make a comeback in other time slots. The channel will also be re-airing the past episodes of its flagship shows Kundali Bhagya and Kumkum Bhagya in the evening slot. Star Plus is using this as an opportunity to bring Hotstar’s popular web series Hostages to TV. It’s even launched a new sci-fi comedy series, Maharaj Ki Jai Ho, which by luck had more than 50 episodes canned. Sony TV and SAB TV will also be sticking to a mix of fresh shows and reruns.
In Hyderabad, along with the two ETV Telugu serials that have completed 3500 episodes, serial addicts will also miss nearly 70 fiction serials and another 20 non-fiction serials in the wake of the lockdown. As many as 15,000 people involved in the Telugu Television industry are sitting at home.
With 160 members, the Telugu Television Producers Council suspended all production and post-production activity on March 21. With telecasts also stopped, channels are managing with repeat of old serials, old shows or Telugu films to fill the slots, says A Prasada Rao of Sonopix Productions Pvt Ltd. Rao, who is the president of the Council, told indianexpress.com that not more than two episodes are shot in a day and a maximum of only 26 episodes are shot in 18 working days a month. “The channels have stopped telecast of ongoing serials. It is an issue TV channels and TV producers are facing throughout the country,” he adds.
Telugu channels telecast popular serials between 6 pm and 11 pm while some others are pushed to a three-hour slot in the afternoon too. Such is the popularity of the shows that actors in TV serials are more familiar to households and connect with the masses more than filmstars. The industry is expected to soon overtake the film industry in sheer size and value. Stating that the industry generates nearly Rs 10 crore revenue for the state government, Rao says the Council has now resolved to first take care of about 6,000 daily wage workers and artistes in the industry. “From the Council, we have instructed all producers to clear the bills of all the daily wagers as their lives are affected. We are also raising funds and in the first week of April, we plan to extend assistance to the daily wagers by collaborating with the unions,” said Rao, adding that the void created by serials will be taken over by OTT platforms which have increased their content.
It is a similar story in Chennai, arguably the largest TV hub in the country, with several film bodies including the Indian Film & Television Directors’ Association (IFTDA) and Federation of Western Indian Cine Employees (FWICE) halting ongoing projects of movies, TV shows and web series from March 19 to 31. In the small-screen space, all shoots have been suspended since March 19. Although Tamil entertainment channels reiterate that they have shot in advance to have enough footage to sustain themselves till March 31, the extended lockdown till April 14 poses various challenges.
Speaking to Indianexpress.com, actor Soniya Bose says even well-established artists are struggling because of the curfew. “We don’t get salary on monthly basis, if we work today we get the payment or else it’s nothing, leave alone junior artistes, this is the situation for any leading artiste including me who has been in this industry since my childhood,” she expresses her worries, adding that they don’t know what to do next month to meet expenses. “What if the lockdown extends? We have to pay our EMI, loan, etc. People think that we have a house, a car so we don’t need to worry about the work, it’s not like that,” she says, adding that while junior artistes will find support, actors like her will be affected.
Tamil producer Venkat Subha says the situation looks grim as the TV producers have incurred heavy losses during the lockdown period. “The TV Industry is facing an unprecedented situation, it will take a minimum of 40 to 50 episodes for a producer to gain profit. Producers initially spend up to Rs 50 lakh to launch the serial grandly by putting up popular artistes, getting the prime time slots, etc. They cut down the production cost once the serial becomes popular and try to generate profit as much as possible. But in the current situation, the producers of the serials which had run about only 15-20 episodes are in deep trouble as they won’t be able to get back the amount they spent.” He fears that while production houses with soaps that completed 150-200 episodes are relatively safe, even they won’t get their payment soon from the TV channels.
Subha added that the channels won’t incur much loss as they run popular serials and movies in that slot. “Production units, editors, junior artistes everyone is affected. It’s not like you can increase the salary after every successful movie, they have a fixed salary, they cannot go and drive an auto to manage expenses, they are under a lot of emotional stress,” he added.
Shanmugam, an office-bearer of Tamil Nadu Chinnathirai Nadigarsangam (Small Screen Actors Association), explains, “If an episode is shot today, it will be aired on TV for four days, so the artiste will be getting the payment on a daily basis while a few are paid every month. There are close to 500 junior artistes who work for leading TV channels like Sun TV, Star Vijay, Zee Tamil, etc. Each channel airs five or six serials per day, so these artistes will be working on each of them.” He said the association president was in talks with sponsors, industry seniors and channels to ensure at least a Rs 2,000 minimum wage during the period.
There is some helping coming already. In a Facebook live with The Indian Express, actor Prakash Raj mentioned how he will be extending help to a number of families. “I have decided to reach out to at least 1000 families. Society has made me rich enough to reach out to these families. To tell them that humanity still exists,” he said. The actor has also donated several 25 kg rice bags to the Film Employees Federation of South India (FEFSI). “This is the time where life tests you. This is the chance to show how much you are willing to give back to life,” he added.
With all the shoot schedules halted indefinitely, most of the television channels in India are resorting to showing reruns of old shows. Vijay TV, for instance, plans to rerun the popular epic Mahabharath in the 11 am to 1 pm slot. They will also be bringing back shows like Kings of Comedy Juniors Season 2 and Kalakka Povathu Yaaru 3, which was a huge hit among audiences. A lot of popular movies like Raja Rani and Kaatrin Mozhi will also be showcased by the channel.
In Kolkata, the cameras stopped recording much before the lockdown announcement; in fact, as early as March 18. A day before, a serial unit shot for 24 hours so that channels could manage new episodes till at least middle of last week. Now, when all the serials have run out of fresh episodes, Bengali channels are rearranging their slots with old shows and older episodes of current shows. Apart from rerunning their old hits Bojhena Se Bojhena and Sangsar Sukher Hoi Ramanir Gune, Star Jalsha has started airing best of Sreemoyee and Joba (Ke Apon Ke Por), repackaged from the old episodes.
Zee Bangla, on the other hand, has come up with a list of their old shows, especially the cult daily soap Ek Akasher Niche. Directed by Ravi Ojha, the show was first aired on Alpha Bangla before it was taken over by Zee. Many other popular shows like Goenda Ginni, Bhutu and old hit Agnipariksha are back on this channel.
Sun Bangla’s Beder Meye Jyotsna ran out of fresh episodes on March 31. A spokesperson of the channel informed that from March 31 all the current slot shows will be retelecast from the start. Colors Bangla has also brought back mythological shows Sree Chaitanya and Manasa. Bengali channels are doing their best to hold the viewership graph, without fresh shows. Here too the worry is about the survival of the daily wage artistes and technicians. Even some of the contract artistes, who receive a monthly salary from either channels or individual production houses, are feeling anxious. Some of them pointed out that a Force Majeure clause is incorporated in all the contracts. So technically house or channels can stop paying even contract artistes for the time when shooting is stalled. But many production houses have initiated proceedings to clear old dues, easing the pressure a bit.
“Like all other sectors, Malayalam serial industry has also been severely impacted by the spread of coronavirus. TV channels usually have a backup of around 10 or 12 episodes for serials. But it would be difficult to tide through the whole lockdown period,” says Jude Attippetty, head of programmes, Mazhavil Manorama, the entertainment channel of the Kottayam-based Malayala Manorama Group.
“We will be able to run new episodes for the next one week. Doing a rerun of the previous episodes is the only option after that. We are also discussing what else could be done. Surya TV has a huge film library, which will help us tide over the lockdown period,” hopes Vayalar Madhvankutty, former serial director who at present works as a consultant of Surya TV, the Malayalam entertainment channel of Chennai based Sun TV Network.
‘Kathakalkkappuram’ (Beyond the Stories), a series on contemporary events and crimes, beamed by Surya TV, is facing the same uncertainity. “Most episodes are based on contemporary issues. The whole production process is usually completed in in two days. All such episodes have already been aired. What we have in stock are only general ones, like stories based on myths and temples,” says Prasad Nooranad, the producer of the show which is aired at 10 pm, Monday to Friday.
While Asianet has in kitty the episodes of its popular serials to be telecast till April 3, the channel plans to re-telecast the old episodes after that. Asianet, owned by Star TV Network, has a vast and diverse collection of movies from across languages in its archives, which the channel hopes to rely on for content during the lockdown. It has also begun retelecasting Bigg Boss Season 2, Malayalam’s most expensive TV show which began January 5 and had to wind up after 76 episodes on March 20.
There is some innovation also happening because of the necessity of the lockdown. One of Assam’s most popular shows, Behabari Outpost on Rengoni TV channel, has managed to air fresh content despite the lockdown. “We are lucky because our artistes have been very cooperative — the moment we heard about the lockdown, we tweaked our script a little and now our actors are shooting scenes themselves at home and sending it to us. We edit it and that’s how we have managed,” says Akshata Narayan, vice-president of AM TV, under which Rengoni TV falls. Behabari Outpost, a “light-comedy” set in a police station in Guwahati, follows the lives of policemen and their families. It is possibly one of Assam’s longest-running TV shows. “We have over 2000 episodes and it’s a very popular show. We usually focus on topical things: during the Citizenship (Amendment) Act we touched upon that, now during COVID-19, it is all about that,” she says.
However, Narayan admits they are worried about their other shows. “We managed to adapt Behabari. Instead of shots in the police station, we are now showing the policemen at home. But what about multi-star shows?” she asks, “It is normal to have two-week stock of episodes. But beyond that we will have to air re-runs. There is no choice.”
Apart from Rengoni TV, the other popular Assamese entertainment channel is Rang. While their most popular serials, Bandhoon, Duti Monor Jonak and Aukhir Jonak, will last through the lockdown, the channel’s content head, Shamim Azmi Bora, said they have been running old content. “When the lockdown was announced, for many shows, dubbing was still left. Now the actors are sending their own recordings as voice notes. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but we manage. What we are worried about is the extension of the lockdown,” she says, adding that they are adding old shows to their primetime slots to keep the viewer engaged. “People are sitting at home — so now we have to keep them engaged. That is why we decided to run our old favourites, Boidehi and Dohon.”
Shanoli Debnath, Antara Chakraborty and Dhanya Vilayil also contributed to this story
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