Changing Plotlines: The History of Indian Television Soap

Television derailed

Abstract: Television soap is a mode of entertainment and at the same time holds great potential as a medium of mass communication as well. However a medium studied in a non-systematic and a generic context risks its development as a socially incoherent and intellectually dwarfed medium. This paper therefore tries to construct a socio-political and economic history of the television soap industry to assess its impact on the audiences and the television market and thus chart a logical relationship between the two.

Next year will mark the 30th anniversary of the launching of India’s first ever episodic television soap, Hum Log. Like every other anniversary, electronic and print news media will make an event of it. There will be extensive coverage, with archival footages doing the loops on every half hour bulletin, stars of the show being paraded in every other talk show, news show and interview, and every news portal will try to one up the other with more intriguing “did you know” trivia about the show. But problem with such orgasmic coverage is that it attains an extreme high for some time and then suddenly vanishes without a decent follow up. Probably that is why there is no sustained coverage on Indian television in either popular journalism or academics. Within these three decades there have been monumental changes in the functioning, management, aesthetics, narratives, commerce and content of the television soaps. And since television remains the most accessible visual medium for Indian audience, it makes no sense that, such changes in a format as popular as television soaps remain undocumented.

This article therefore aims to map this trajectory of Indian television soaps, which have evolved to become an industry in its own right.  The trajectory shall be mapped by looking at how a single show’s success opened doors to a burgeoning television industry and what character did this industry acquired in the forthcoming decades.

The study although referring to the entire television industry here only refers to the Hindi soap industry with passing references to other regions. Also this study entails a holistic analysis of the entire industry and refrains from passing judgments and analyzing the content of these shows since that is an area that warrants a separate and a detailed enquiry in its own right. The terms soap and serial have been used interchangeably, since both terms have been used to denote the episodic drama show in various references.


Doordarshan(DD) amidst a paradigmatic shift

Privatization entered the television soap industry right from its inception. The making of Hum Log, the first ever Indian television soap, was assigned to a four member team comprising of Maohar Shyam Joshi as scriptwriter, P. Kumar Vasudev as the director, Satish Garg as the executive producer and Shobha Doctor as the producer who created an independent television production company by the name of Time and Video Space Corporation. Thus right from the beginning the inclusion of private players in making of television soaps was a given. Although this scenario was more a case of public –private partnership to provide programming services than a complete abandon of a public enterprise to private interests.

When in 1980’s DD was opened up to private advertisers and media houses, it was amid an increasing trend of commercialization and deregulation of television being witnessed worldwide. There was a rapid proliferation of private advertising and programme sponsorships on DD as well.  It is worthwhile to interrogate under what conditions DD was opened to greater deregulation and privatization.

Indira Gandhi’s regime right from the beginning of 1980’s initiated a policy shift from a statist redistributive, socialist position in favour of a more pro-business, economic development stand. Privatization was no longer a big taboo. And among the first few government entities where this shift in policy was reflected was in DD itself. Although introduction of INSAT which enabled a wider access of DD content across the nation helped the cause of Indian television becoming a viable medium for large scale advertising, it was the state’s prerogative for an increasing economic liberalization that opened up the channel to the prospects of private sponsorship. And the vehicle for this pattern of advertising came to be television soap operas.

The pro-development soap opera

The launching of Hum Log, in India was based on Mexico’s experience of its first telenovela Ven Conmigo (Come with Me) (1975). The Mexican show was in turn inspired from the experience of Peruvian soap Simplemente Maria (1969). Both were promoted in the name of pro-development agenda. Especially in case of the Peruvian Soap, the show was sponsored by Singer sewing machines, which was also showcased within the programme as the means of a poor girl to overcome her poverty. The show was a success and so was the promotion of the product through direct advertising and product placement strategy within the show.

Hum Logwas a story of three generations of a lower middle class family, showcasing their daily life and its trials and tribulations. Like its Mexican and Peruvian counterparts, it too was launched with a proclaimed intent of pro-development agenda, since the official policy position of the time was still not completely divorced from socialism. However the paradox was obvious, since in the Indian case the chief sponsor of the show was the very embodiment of modern day, middle class, consumerist culture- the instant 2 minute Maggi noodles (a flagship product of Nestle), something that has almost become analogous with noodles in the country. In no way did the choice of sponsorship reflect the theme of the show or the intent of the state of a pro-development agenda.

A competition for advertising space

Nevertheless due its content and relatable plot, Hum Log remained hugely popular in the northern states of India[i]. Moreover the reach of television grew rapidly during the time from 28% in 1984, before Hum Log, to 53% by the end of 1985 and thus the trend of advertising through TV soaps also became very popular. By 1987, the competition for buying on air time for advertisements among various advertisers grew intense as never before. As Rogers and Singhal write “DD changed from being a ‘revenue guzzler’ to becoming a ‘revenue creator’ for the Indian government”. Thus the pro-privatization model, of prioritizing revenue generation was firmly established in the functioning of DD. Sinclair and Harrison write “For its part DD had been progressively privatized throughout the 1980’s, in the sense that it both increased its use of private program production and came to rely ever more on advertising income rather than state subvention”.

Another important development that needs to be stressed upon is the very creation of this advertising space in between popular television soaps that was erstwhile unavailable to Indian advertisers who had to mainly rely upon radio and newspaper as popular media of communication. This space was a result of the popularity of television soaps mainly (as evident by the experience of Hum Log and other early Indian television soaps) and in turn it made TV soap industry a profitable one because of the profits from advertising revenue.

Since the introduction of television soaps in India in 1984, the share of advertising revenue of print media climbed down from 80% in 1983 to 47% in 1986 while that for television increased to 40%. Rogers and Singhal explain, “When advertisers increase their expenditure on television, other media (especially print) receive less advertising”. More television programs were created following the success of Hum log. But DD was unable to satiate the demand for on air time for advertisers. One of the advertisers back then is reported to have said “DD is acting like a rationing agency, not a marketing agency”.


The impact of private Satellite and Cable Broadcasters on Indian Television Industry

It was in this background of advertising space in between television soaps becoming a very sought after commodity, and DD due to a limited air time and certain restrictions on advertising content being unable to meet the demands of different advertisers, that private cable and satellite services made an entry in India in the programming and distribution sector in the beginning of 90’s. Again it was the impetus to economic liberalization from the state, and not an external pressure from international satellite services or a need to appease the middle class, which was the reason for the official toleration to the entry of national and international private cable and satellite channels in India.

Pradip N. Thomas explains that although Indian policy official position under various state heads has always been that broadcasting shall remain a state prerogative until the time that “people are ready for alternatives”, the economic liberalization and de-regulation under the P.V. Narsimha’s Congress led coalitional government had created such an environment where the pressure to introduce these alternatives was increasingly growing. The Indian advertisers who eyed more commercial space to sell their products also welcomed this proliferation of private services in channel and cable distribution sector.

Star TV was launched in India in 1992. To capitalize on the Indian market Star TV then owned by Rupert Murdoch’s news corporation bought 49.9% share in Subhash Chandra’s Asia Today which owned AsiaSat transponder. Both channels i.e. Star TV and Chandra’s Zee Telefilms were transmitted through this satellite in the country. The agreement between the two companies also stated that Star TV could not produce and televise any localized programming in Hindi and would only concentrate on providing English content.

Subsequently the demand for Indian programming superseded that of foreign programming. Star Plus, the flagship channel of Star TV in the country was facing huge losses. It was around 1996 that the problems began between the two companies. In order to be able to provide Hindi programming Star tried to show English programmes dubbed in Hindi, but to no success in viewership increase. Later in 1997 after a bitter conflict Murdoch reduced his share percentage in the group to a ‘strategic’ four percent.

But it was finally in 1999 that Chandra acquired complete stake of Murdoch in Asia Today Limited and the two companied parted ways. Now Star could openly compete with Zee in the Hindi General Entertainment category. This strategy helped Star gain some ground against Zee in terms of viewership. Sony Entertainment Television and Star Plus put together managed to secure a four percent increase in viewership between 1998 and 1999 and ended up with 15% of TV viewership against 16% of viewership for Zee TV alone.

This story of entry of private satellite and cable services and channels in the television soap industry provides us with some interesting insights. Firstly, DD’s hegemony over television soaps and the resulting advertising revenue was initially challenged and subsequently broken with the entry of the combination of Star and Zee telefilms. Secondly the initial coming together of Star and Zee in an atmosphere conducive to liberalization and globalization helped both the companies to establish themselves. However Zee telefilms pre-emptively secured exclusive rights to telecast Hindi programmes in India, later resulting in a bitter feud between the two companies over producing Hindi entertainment. In the watershed of DD’s success in turning over its profits with the broadcast of Hum Log, this interest of international and local private companies in the soap industry reaffirmed the importance of the serial genre of programming to the TV industry. Thirdly, the feud between Star and Zee without the arbitration of any regulatory authority over television sector towards the latter part of the decade was another example of the culture of corporate rivalry that was to continue more or less in all sectors in the following years. In their bids to outdo each other all channels began to treat television programming as a strategic marketing and profit making venture that did compromise to a large extent with the content of the these shows.

Debates on Commercialization and Cultural Invasion

There were issues of commercialization of content and cultural invasion that were debated throughout the decades of 90’s and even before. While before the 90’s all committees appointed for studying Indian broadcasting sector, such as the Chanda Committee (1966), the Verghese Committee (1978), the Joshi Working Group on Software for Doordarshan (1985) and the Prasar Bharti Act (1990) were talking about issues of state’s ownership and regulation over media, in the 90’s these issues acquired new dimensions of privatization and the impact of satellite services, such as covered by the Damodar Committee (1991) and the Varadan Committee (1991). However the attitude of the State towards the recommendations of all these commissions and those which were to follow remained lackadaisical. This attitude is not very surprising, since as we have already seen the privatization and commercialization of DD was itself at the behest of state and its impetus to economic liberalization and globalization.

Nevertheless, there were two opinions on the commercialization of content, sponsorship and programming, in other words the whole functioning of the TV soap industry. Those who favoured commercialization asserted that program sponsorship, by providing funding for production as well as profit incentive made television programming a viable venture in India. Also with possibility of tie ups between Indian and foreign companies, like that between Star and Zee, it helped Indian channels and services to set up in the country. As already mentioned channels and cable services were profiting, succeeding and the private television soap industry was burgeoning. So much so that not only daily entertainment channels were mushrooming in all the regions of the country, but their sheer profitability was shaping them as corporate entities. In fact back in 90’s itself, Sun Tv, the leading channel in Tamil, Eenadu in Telegu, Asianet in Malayalam and Udaya in Kannada along with other major Indian cable channels broadcasting all over India joined an industry lobby group, the Indian Broadcaster’s Association- an initiative of Subhash Chandra.

While those who opposed this trend pointed out to the blatant consumerism that this program-advertising relationship was promoting, which was unhealthy for the economically disadvantaged as well as minority groups as the advertising content mostly catered to majority interests and upper class aspirations for maximization of profits.

The issue of the upper and middle class audience

One of the reasons for the success of Hum Log, as Rogers and Singhal point out, was that from the period when the show debuted on Indian television, up until next two years there had been major changes in viewership patterns of television. Launch of INSAT-1B in 1983 had expanded the reach of television to rural- remote areas as well. At the beginning of 1984 there were 42 television transmitters in India and by the end of 1985 this number went up to 175. The number of television viewers had increased from 30 million to 80 million from 1984 to 1987. Since the only service provider back then was DD, the viewership access was similar across all regions and thus the viewership composition was diverse.

However when private channels, which were accessible through cable services only, were introduced in India, they were completely based on a profit maximization model. Firstly these channels were not launched in all regions of the country, due to gradual expansion of cable services. Secondly the cost of subscribing to cable services was much higher than the access to mandatory DD broadcast through terrestrial transmitters. Thus access to private channels was more or less restricted to middle class and upper class audiences.

When these channels started functioning, there was no content regulation body that would mandate a certain diversity in the content that would reach out to all sections of the audience. Since the primary audiences in the early days for these channels were urban upper and middle class population, the content of the shows could very easily be based upon their issues and could move away from the erstwhile lower strata’s trials and tribulations.

Moreover since economic liberalization, the middle class population was increasingly being promoted to spend more on consumption. As Jayati Ghosh writes “the structure was that of mixed economy, with private investment and production decisions being determined by the unequal distribution of purchasing power”. Consumerism was gradually becoming a nation’s ideology and the logic given was to infuse an ailing economy with internal consumer based commerce.

Thus these shows which were already targeting a middle class audience, with the advertising space between these soaps having become a very attractive avenue for product promotion, attracted more companies to reach out to their targeted middle and upper class consumers through the television sets. More money was being diverted to these shows whilst leaving DD high and dry. This was precisely because the private channel audience was rejecting DD’s content. When Star launched its Hindi channel, Star Plus, the channel management acquired DD’s library of programmes to rerun, but precisely due to the audiences now being ‘different’ did this content did not work and Star had to begin producing its own programming. Thus the content of the shows after the entry of private satellite and cable channels became increasingly prioritized to show urban middle and upper class themes.

Mc Quail aptly described this phenomenon in 1986, in defining commercialization as “the production and supply of cultural and communication products within a market structure for profit”. He suggested that in the third world economies there was a “danger of commercialization upsetting the socio cultural goals of mass media”. As was predicted, the content of TV shows increasingly removed itself from a larger class purview, something that DD earlier catered to with its wide variety of shows (Hum Log, Buniyaad, Hamrahi, Neem Ka Ped, Dekh Bhai Dekh, Shanti, Nukkad etc.)

After globalization and liberalization the Indian middle class was coming increasingly in close contact with Indian Diaspora scattered in different parts of world. In order to keep their upper and middle class viewers happy, private channels were keeping in mind this section of their audience. Zee itself claims to be the “largest media franchise serving the South Asian Diaspora”. Star TV was already a global conglomerate, as are Sony and Colours TV today. In keeping up with the private channels, DD was also led to commission Nine Network of Australia to produce prime time programming for DD Metro. The programming however did not work as in 2003 DD metro was converted into DD News.


Incoming of Media Houses

One of the factors in this ever evolving and ever corporatizing television industry which remained relatively unnoticed in popular commerce and political discussions up until 2000 was the television production house. As we have already seen, even with the first successful TV soap Hum Log, there was a private media house at work in producing the show. However with DD’s hegemony in the 80’s and for a few years the hold exercised by Zee TV over the market, all the focus remained on the television channels and their competing rivalries. When Sony entered the scene and Star TV dissociated itself from Zee, almost all channels were now free to compete in a market driven television economy. Thus what would set them apart now were two things, firstly the content of the soaps and other entertainment programmes and how much Target Rating Point (TRP) could these shows secure. In both these factors, television production houses were to acquire a renewed importance in the decade of 2000’s.

Hindi film industry has always been known for its culture of production houses. These production houses have evolved from making films, to now advertising and also distributing them. But in television it was not so easy. Unlike the film industry where the primary product i.e. the movie reaches the audience directly from the manufacturer i.e. the producers and directors via screening venues, in television industry the primary product i.e. the show reaches the audience through television via a cable/satellite/terrestrial channel from the manufacturer i.e. the production house. In television industry therefore the primary product becomes the property of both the producers of the show as well as the channel, because unlike the producers of movies who have already managed their finances and then invested, here the responsibility for managing finances for the show rests upon the channels with constant marketing to advertisers and the continuity of the show follows from that.

Thus the medium through which these shows reach the audience are as much involved in the content of the show as the actual makers. The advertising space in a television show, though virtual, owes its existence and permanence to the popularity of the show. And permanence of the space is important for a consistent partnership of the show and channel with the advertisers and sponsors.

However when television channels were free to practice in this war for advertising revenue in a deregulated economic atmosphere, they had to find a successful formula to make the ad spaces in their shows more reliable and permanent.

It was in 2000, that Star TV seized the television industry and entered the soap scene in a big way. Star’s tie-up with Balaji Telefilms, a production house headed by Ekta Kapoor and her family members (a Hindi film Industry family) produced some historically successful TV shows and brought Star in direct competition with the other big players like Zee and Sony in the Hindi General Entertainment Sector. It is believed that Star paid a premium to the production house for three of its most popular TV shows ever, Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Kyunki), Kahaani Ghar Ghar Ki and Kasautii Zindagi Kayand the deal between the two entailed that Balaji Telefilms would not make soaps for any other channel in the same time slots as these three for competing channels. So successful was this relationship that in 2004 Star TV bought 21% shares in the production house through Dubai based affiliate Asian Broadcasting FZ-Llc for Rs 123 crore. The production house thus emerged as this probable formula for the success of television soaps, which all channels were in search of.

The power structure of contemporary television industry

In the past few years many television soaps have hit the 1000 episode mark. This comes amidst the environment of rampant audience fragmentation. No less than three channels were cancelled in the past few years (9X, Imagine and Real) and one was bought off by the other (Star One is now Life Ok). Moreover during the past decade the idea of a high TRP rating has also changed. From 2000-2008 a high TRP was considered to be 14 to 15 points per week whereas now amidst a higher number of General Entertainment channels this value is considered a high at 3 or 4 points.

The initiation of this 1000 episode culture had begun only from the flagship show of Balaji telefilms and Star Plus, Kyunki. The success of this show in terms of initial viewership as well as the number of episodes that it ran for was so overwhelming that a whole genre of television soaps came to be named after the show as the Saas-Bahu serials. The genre was not only then referenced in comedy shows, news articles but also in films etc. Balaji had hit the hammer right on the nail with its shows and as a result did it manage to become a corporate entity in its own right.

However towards the latter part of the decade when the ratings of Kyunki finally dipped, the show started to become a liability on the channel. The myth of the indispensability of production house was shattered and after a bitter feud between the channel and the production house which also involved litigation, the show along with a few other successful and not so successful ones was dropped unceremoniously.

The control of channels over creative departments of TV production houses and actors of shows was increasingly tightened. One of the examples of how channel marketing strategies trump creative control is fictional cross-over strategy now termed as ‘maha’ episodes (mega-episodes) where storylines and characters from different shows of a channel are mixed in weekend special episodes of extended length. This strategy though useful for channels, has exhausted the actors and creative teams of the shows with unending hours of shooting and production. Barun Sobti, an actor who recently left the Star Plus show, Is Pyaar ko Kya Naam doon on account of the long working hours, recently lashed out against the channel. “There is a labour law in the country which allows you to work for 45 hours a week, but TV actors, specially the lead actors, on an average, work close to 84 hours a week. I think there should be strict labour laws in the country” he said in an interview.

Since actors work on a contractual basis with television channels, they are not on a fixed payroll and therefore are not protected against exhaustive work practices of employers. Anurag Tomar, a lawyer elaborated “The Industrial Disputes Act doesn’t cover TV actors. TV actors and the producers don’t share the relationship of an employee and employer. The actors work on a contractual basis and are not on the permanent payroll of the makers”. The situation could have been worse had CINTAA (Cine and TV actors association) not intervened in the past and passed a rule that no TV actor will work for more than 12 hours a day. This accentuation of media monopolies as Thomas suggested was a direct result of privatization of broadcasting and dilution of monopoly restriction.


The logic of the daily soap- a theoretical explanation

But what explains this monumental success of television soaps in such a short span of time, such that it not only becomes one of the most famous pastimes of a nation but also immensely attractive to national and international bigwigs of the media industry?

In many ways television soaps were and are to the present day society, what Benedict Anderson described novels and newspapers were to the eighteenth century western society. In a sense these soaps combine the features of novels and newspapers together to bring about a certain electronic capitalism into existence. They combine the idea of simultaneity of both a novel and a newspaper as a fictionalized form of daily consumption across a community of audience. This audience is in no way as huge as Anderson’s nation. It is a localized audience and represents only a particular class of people but through television programme scheduling many such communities have begun to exist simultaneously, each with its own character and characteristics.

Television soaps command television industry. Even in the national overview Hindi general entertainment rules the roster above news, movies et al and by a lofty margin. The reason for such mass consumption of television soaps, if one were to accept Anderson’s idea, could be that every day for half an hour or so, each show that commands a certain viewership enables a particular section of the society, however distanced and unrelated to each other, to imagine themselves as a part of a community.

Anderson writes about the novel and the newspaper, “These forms provided the technical means for ‘representing’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation”. Novel to him was a “device for the presentation of simultaneity in homogeneous empty time”. This when combined with the simultaneity of consumption of a newspaper by an audience through “calendrical coincidence”, aptly describes a television as a device of presentation of simultaneity and a simultaneous consumption.

The television soap in many ways could be described as the electronic equivalent of print capitalism, since this medium too serves the profit making interests of capitalists. The increasing corporatization of the entire television industry is a testimony to that. In a way by bringing together existing and potential consumers in front of their television sets at the same time with the same advertising space appearing at the regular intervals like clockwork, television channels provide advertisers with direct access to these consumers directly at their homes.

But capitalism does capitalize on any opportunity of making profit. However what’s important is the ability of these shows to bind together these dispersed individuals in an imagined community that we call target viewership. The pathos of a show, or a melodrama, a narrative or a story, are all various components of a television soap that allow individuals to connect with them. They identify with these characters either in sympathy, empathy or vicariously. What ideology these shows perpetrate is a matter for separate and much intense enquiry, something that mainstream journalism as well as academics have been attending to partially. However dismissing these soaps with generic criticisms are all steps in the wrong direction. The reasons for why the viewers of a particular television show are loyal to it need to be investigated because they reveal the socio-political and socio-economic structure of the society.

[i] It commanded an audience rating of 65 to 90 in north India and 20 to 45 in the main cities of South India, since most Hindi programmes were rejected there due to language barrier.

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