Tu Patang Main Dor on Zee Punjabi
Jothe Jotheyali, Paaru (a poor girl who starts working for a rich, arrogant woman) and Kamali (a small-town girl wanting to play kabaddi) were born through such insights. Shows such as these have pushed up Zee Kannada’s audience share from 22 per cent in 2018 to 35 per cent now, making it a strong No 1 straddling both fiction and non-fiction.
Zee Kannada was the first. The Rs 8,130-crore Zee Entertainment
has repeated the “Soul to Screen” exercise, as Zee calls it, for six of its 46 channels across shows. Till the lockdown was imposed in March, more than 200 Zee staffers had spent over 2,500 hours across 28 regions in Punjab, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal to understand the audiences. The effort paid off, again and again.
Zee Punjabi hit the No 1 position within six weeks of its launch in January this year (it is now at No 3). Zee Bangla, Zee Sarthak (Odia), Zee Telugu and Zee Tamil have similarly seen their connection with the audience and viewer share rise steadily. “Our growth in regional languages is because we started doing this on a regular basis,” points out Agarwal.
In 2017, Zee's non-Hindi Indian language channels had a 7.4 per cent share of the total TV viewership, going by the Broadcast Audience Research Council data. This went to a high of 9.5 per cent before the lockdown, after which the lack of fresh programming pushed it down to 8.4 per cent.
The psychology of semiotics
On the face of it, Soul to Screen Zee seems like the kind of research that most consumer good firms do. But in the Rs 79,000-crore Indian broadcasting industry, this is quite unusual. Most new shows and channels are decided upon by looking at viewership data and filling the gaps it shows. Any qualitative input usually comes from focus groups or script testing (which is rare). Almost all channels commission programming, which means the creative process is outsourced.
What triggered this manpower and resource intensive approach?
“Between 2010 and 2020, the average TVR (television rating) was collapsing (across the industry). Many channels and shows were getting pulled out. Something was fundamentally wrong in the new product development process,” says Agarwal.
This dilemma dovetailed with a corporate overhaul in 2017, which was about getting more consumer centric. “In consumer marketing, the people delivering an experience (say, in a hotel) are a big component. If we extend that analogy to storytelling, the experience being delivered is storytelling created by humans in real time. And, therefore, being native to the consumer is critical,” says Agarwal. “It is not just veshbhusha (clothes) that you are portraying; it is the core of their value system.”
For instance, to figure out what India ka nahi, Punjab ka batwara hua tha (Punjab, and not India, were partitioned),” kept coming up.
That helped create Tu Patang Main Dor, a love story that transcends this divide. The state’s love of the army and the obsession of its youth to go overseas all became fodder for the creative team.
Similarly, for kirtan singers.
Note that most of Zee’s success in using immersive cultural research seems to have worked in non-Hindi languages. There are two reasons for this.
One: Much of the programming in Bangla, Marathi, Kannada and other languages is either made in-house or the content teams at the channel are closely involved with the production process. This makes it “easier to pilot (the exercise), unlike Hindi where the production house is external,” says Agarwal.
Two: “The regional teams, unlike Hindi, are more culturally responsive because they also consume the product,” Agarwal adds.
This raises a question: Can it work in Hindi, which brings in the largest chunk of viewership and revenues for most broadcasters? Zee has used it for &TV, where shows such as Dr B R Ambedkar have helped push its share up. It will be interesting to see what changes it can bring to popular Hindi programming.