Dec 9, 2008

Entertainment - Q&A Siddhartha Basu

He may be one of Indian television’s most famous quizmasters, but Siddhartha Basu, CMD, Synergy Adlabs, is now “happier putting together shows from behind the cameras”. Ever since 1989 when he set up a TV production company, Synergy Adlabs, along with his wife Anita, they have put together shows like KBC, Mastermind India, University Challenge, India’s Child Genius, Bluffmaster, Heartbeat and the recent Jhalak Dikhhla Jaa-Dancing with the Stars, Dus Ka Dum and Kya Aap Paanchvi Pass Se Tez Hain. Now, their show Aap Ki Kacheri with host Kiran Bedi is showing on prime-time in Star, a welcome antidote to family soaps and music & dance shows. In an email interview with FE, Basu talks about the new show, the crisis in the TV industry post-meltdown and why reality offers a universe of possibilities for TV. Excerpts:

How did the reality show with Kiran Bedi come about?

The idea of a real-time kacheri, with real people and real disputes always had potential. In a country where there are crores of cases pending, we believed there would be a special draw to a television forum of swift hearings for disputes that were festering outside the courts. Working out the feasibilities and putting together the legal back-end was the first challenge. Once Star bought into it, against the trend of regressive soaps, the challenge then was to make the format work for a general entertainment channel with massive reach and women’s orientation.

Ours would be a ghar ghar ki kahani with a difference. Without any actors or script or make-believe, the show could offer a true and dramatic look at the dynamics and conflicts that face our society today, while offering a better understanding of problem-solving through a systematic application of laws, rights, and social equity. Along with the broadcaster we homed in on Kiran Bedi as the first choice as host—popular for her proactive policing, her social activism, and her reputation of being fair, frank and fearless.

What has been the response?

Down the line, once we had a set of programmes had been edited, Star’s decision to upgrade it to super prime time had me worried. But I’ve been both surprised and relieved, as the early indicators seem to have vindicated their faith, positioning Aap ki Kacheri among the top-10 shows across channels.

You have done many reality show formats from KBC to Paanchvi Pass to Dus ka Dum—which, according to you, has been the most challenging?

Each has posed its own challenge, but since it’s unprecedented, Aap ki Kacheri has been among the toughest shows we’ve handled. From ideation to pilot to rounding up representative cases before the programme was telecast, it’s been a long and uphill effort. Our BIG Synergy team at Delhi has been slogging at it for well over a year.

Do you own the patents of these “Indianised” shows—how does it work?

The licensor retains the rights. We’ve thoroughly Indianised shows like KBC, Jhalak Dikhla Jaa and Dus ka Dum, far more than other international versions, but the tiles and the rights belong to the licensors, those were the terms of the agreement worked out between them and the broadcaster. We would try to do the same with an original format which is successful, and has scope to work in other languages and cultures.

Do you think the audience has had enough of reality shows—or will they be around for a while?

They may have had enough of the limited sort of reality shows on offer, but reality offers a universe of possibilities, much beyond what any fiction writer can dream of. And fiction too has everything to gain by breaking free of the shackles of soaps.

Give us a perspective on the TV industry. From the content-providers’ point of view, are you happy with the way monetisation is happening in this industry growing explosively?

It’s been a buyer’s market and most producers have been cornered into functioning as mere production houses, doing the broadcaster’s bidding as work-for-hire, at a nominal percentage as a fee. The plea has been that it’s the broadcaster who takes the financial risk, so they get to keep all of the powers and rewards, or bear the losses. With recessionary trends, the squeeze on producers has gotten bigger. One way forward, to change things, is to not just work on commissioned programmes and to share the risk.

What will be the biggest trends on TV in 2009-10? How will the meltdown affect the business?

I fear the shakedown is imminent. There have been too many channels and shows chasing limited funds. So many ventures came up for quick gains in the valuation game, while salaries and fees went up way out of proportion to skills and experience. A number of channels are up for sale.

What do we see from Synergy next? Will Siddharta Basu return as a quizmaster?

We have a slew of interesting programmes coming up, including global hit formats as well as totally indigenous ones, and are working at sustained growth into regional markets. Personally, I’m far happier putting together shows from behind the cameras.

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