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Fantasy shows: Long term programming strategy or a passing fad?

Fantasy is the flavour of the season. Be it the huge frenzy over ‘Game of Thrones’ Season 6 internationally or our own ‘Naagin’ ruling over the Hindi GEC space since its launch. Fantasy shows on television is not a new phenomenon. But what is it in today’s landscape that lends to the success of such shows?

What is it that we like about fantasy series? They transport the viewers to a world beyond reality, there is no end to the possibilities in the plotline and characterisation. With advanced technology available in the form of VFX the production standards have vastly improved.

However, the introduction of fantasy track in a family soap is unusual. There has, of course, been the divine factor playing in a lot of daily soaps, but witches and paatal lok are not something that are found in your average serial. Hence, when the lead protagonist of ‘Sasural Simar Ka’ turned into a fly a few episodes back, Twitterattis were abuzz with extreme reactions. Regardless of what the people said, the very fact that this transformation was trending, shows how closely people follow such series.

We will have to wait and see where Simar ends up, but ‘Naagin’ has got a fresh extension on Colors. India’s most watched show on Hindi GEC tells the story of an ichchadhari naagin (shape-shifting snake). Zee TV’s ‘Vishkanya’ is another show in the fantasy genre. Meanwhile, Colors is gearing up for another show in the supernatural/ fantasy genre – ‘Kavach - Kali Shaktiyon Se’.

Show traction

So, what kind of traction do such shows deliver? According to Manisha Sharma, Programming Head, Colors, “Every show with fantasy and supernatural elements receive a mixed bag of feedback. While the ardent fans wait with bated breath for the new twist in the tale, there are also some cynics who drive conversation around the track on the show inadvertently drawing the attention of a larger audience. In terms of viewership, we have noticed that shows whose storylines focus on folklore and supernatural elements are currently preferred by viewers. ‘Naagin’ is the biggest example of this trend. The show is based on popular myths and has been the No. 1 on television since its launch.”

Television producer Saurabh Tiwari felt that such shows gave instant spike and increased the drama quotient. He, however, did not think that this was a permanent trend. “It always existed occasionally,” he added.

Speaking along similar lines, Divya Radhakrishnan, Managing Director, Helios Media, opined that such shows had always been there. “You always had your ‘Ramayan’, ‘Mahabharat’ and ‘Krishna’. There has always been some mythological/ fantasy show or the other on GECs,” she added.

Shailesh Kapoor, CEO, Ormax Media, commented, “Most shows are conceived to have a certain central premise, which lasts about 6-12 months on-air, maximum two years. After that, the makers need to discover new ideas to keep the successful show alive. These tracks are one way of doing so. But with their overuse, they have lost the novelty factor they first had.”

Like Tiwari, Kapoor, too, felt that the use of fantasy and supernatural tracks in regular soaps was a passing fad and had already lost the novelty factor. “When it was used first in ‘Sasural Simar Ka’, it was something new and hence got the audience’s attention, but its overuse across shows has led to audience fatigue in the last two years,” he remarked.

At the same time, Kapoor added, “However, fantasy shows like ‘Naagin’ cannot be compared to supernatural or fantasy tracks in daily soaps. A show like ‘Naagin’ is designed like a fantasy, which offers a certain type of entertainment to the weekend audiences. Unlike weekday soaps, it does not carry the burden of viewer expectations, that is, the expectations of creating an emotional connect via characters. Hence, shows like ‘Naagin’, if executed well, will continue to thrive.”

Sukesh Motwani of Bodhi Tree Multimedia, too, said that fantasy shows had been around for some time now. Giving a detailed lookback on fantasy shows on television, Motwani said, “I wouldn’t call it being on the rise, I just feel that they are always on TV. What we have seen in the last so many years is that fantasy and supernatural tracks were always there. There was a show called ‘Nagin’ that I had done when I was associated with Zee TV in 2006-07. Then there was ‘Chandrakanta’ on DD, which was almost two decades back. But what has happened in the last few years is that it has become a part of the main daily soaps. So, instead of just being a separate show which deals with fantasy, suddenly what one has realised is that these kind of stories happen in small towns, for instance, when people say, “Kisiko devi aa gayi” or “Kisike andar bhoot chalaa gayaa”. We hear about things that are supernatural and paranormal.”

He added, “Now they have gone into another zone completely and in some shows they have almost dominated, shows like ‘Sasural Simar Ka’. So what has happened perhaps is that within these there are always two kinds of stories or narratives that work in daily dramas. One is the story that is very relatable, which can happen to you within a family set-up, which is the family drama; and the other is ‘Escapist’, where you take familiar settings, but you do things within these stories that are extremely fantasy-related in nature. Take for instance, ‘Naagin’ – you are taking a familiar family set-up, but then you are playing the myth of a snake-woman. Then there are other shows which have vampires and done a lot of storytelling around these things.”

“What is fascinating perhaps is to see how many kinds of conflicts you can sell to the women viewers within the usual family setting when they watch the drama. What I find fascinating as a TV producer or programmer is how stories that project women almost in an alternate role – like the role of a Naagin or a women trapped in Paatal lok, so that almost creates an alternate reality for women to operate within. Thus, the storytelling moves in another direction as well,” he added.

Drawing a parallel with films, Motwani explained, “In films you have superheroes, larger-than-life identities for men. Similarly, in television you are trying to find alternate scenarios for women where they can be bahus and mothers and daughters, but they will play out their battles in a very different way and that different way is a very fantastic world of Paatal lok and stuff like that. This means that it is almost like a new form of Eastern storytelling, where you don’t have to take Western derivatives. For instance, I am not going to transfer a superhero story and make a Krishh out of a woman, because that will appear very western and not so rooted. So, the only way entertaining stories can be told by women is using extremely interesting iconic figures within these kind of worlds. So these are very mythical stuff that have been mixed into the usual daily soap storytelling. It’s there only on a few shows I suppose it is here to stay.”

Rural Vs Urban viewers

Colors’ Sharma was emphatic in stating that such fantasy shows did not lose out on the urban viewers or the youth TG. She said, “As of this week (Week19), BARC has started featuring distinct ratings for both urban and rural markets. According to this fresh data, ‘Naagin’ is the No. 1 show in urban markets and enjoys a strong viewership in the rural markets as well. So, there is a definite skew towards urban youth that is watching the enjoying the show on a weekly basis.”

When asked about the influence of growing rural viewership on the introduction of fantasy or supernatural shows/ tracks in GEC soaps, Sharma replied, “Our content strategy has not changed much with the changing landscape of rural viewership. We continue to create content which focuses on urban and LC1 markets across the country. Our positioning remains the same; we want to be India’s leading premium Hindi entertainment channel.”

Meanwhile, Tiwari opined that inclusion of rural viewership in BARC data had influenced a lot. “Post expansion of the BARC universe, issues of Tier 2 cities are on the rise,” he added.

Presenting a contrarian view, Ormax Media’s Kapoor affirmed that the inclusion of rural viewership in BARC data had no influence on such shows. He remarked, “‘Naagin’ is working equally well in both urban and rural markets. ‘Sasural Simar Ka’ started its supernatural tracks about two years ago, well before the rural ratings.”

When asked whether Hindi GEC shows were becoming too formulaic and predictable, Kapoor replied, “It varies from show to show. Several new shows like ‘Kasam’ (Colors) are doing very well because they have a new story to tell. Formula or predictability comes in when the show begins to age and viewers are tiring of it. In the long run, programmes that deliver Indian values and inspiration through strong women characters tend to work in the long run. Others tend to stay on top for only a few weeks.”

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