?None of these stories is new. In fact, they are some of the most passed down tales through the centuries as well as told by grandmothers and taught in history classes. Then what makes the stories of Mahabharat, Mahadev, Jodha Akbar, Buddha or Maharana Pratap the top crowd pullers on television?
"These are our stories and our classics. There is enough for every generation to reinvent and rediscover," says Mahesh Samat, chief executive of the soon-to-be-launched Epic TV, one which will only feature history, mythology and folklore. "For the target group that the channels have aimed for, they have made it relevant for them."
Mahabharata on Star Plus drew 8.5 million viewers in its opening episode. The romance of Jodha Akbar, caught by Ekta Kapoor's Balaji Telefilms for Zee TV, has remained among the top three fiction shows for week after week, though viewers already know the final outcome of the romance.
Star India and Zee TV say the focus on making the stories relevant to today's generation has led to the success. "Vyasa wrote the Mahabharat after the Vedas, to convey the same message as the Vedas but through a story," says Star India's programming head Danish Khan.
"There is a new generation out there which needs relevance, so we needed to tell the story differently from what we had seen two decades ago," Khan explained while referring to BR Chopra's Mahabharat TV series that ran on Doordarshan.
"So, dialogues, visuals, computer graphics, a careful casting of actors all were speaking to a viewer who is also living in times of conflict, thereby bringing in relevance," says Siddharth Tewary of Swastik Pictures, the production house which has made the series.
For Star, Mahabharat is definitely the biggest show they have ever launched with close to Rs 100 crore said to be riding on it.
Roping in creative minds like Devdutt Pattanaik and Bhanu Athaiya and Bollywood set designer Omung Kumar raised the bar.
The relevance of women - be it Draupadi who is set to enter Mahabharat, Pratap's mother or Jodha - in their portrayal also seems to have worked in their favour.
"Besides showing an insight of the Rajput life, Jodha's writing has focussed on the impact women have had on the Indian society and its rulers - while on one level there is a husband and wife story, of how she positively contributes to his life, on the other is her advice on matters of court. Ekta Kapoor's two years of effort have paid off," says Zee's head of programming Ajay Bhalwankar.
Star general manager Gaurav Banerjee also closes in on another point. That for far too long, traditional TV has spent too much money on Bollywood stars and borrowing formats from the West.
In the past couple of years, the industry has started telling stories better, bringing scale to production as well as a keen attention to casting. "Mahadev and Arjun are like modern day heroes in the way they speak, behave, battle and fight for," says Banerjee who would like to increasingly focus on literature and mythology.
None of these historical tales comes cheap. While Mahabharat is said to be the most-expensive of the lot on air right now, others cost 50,000-60,000 per episode, according to television industry sources. "The look and feel, costume, language, colour all make for a visual treat and tales of valour always have a huge pride attached to it," says Sneha Rajani, senior vice-president and business head at Sony, Multi-Screen Media's flagship channel.
In fact, Multi-Screen Media's newly-appointed chief executive, NP Singh, see a huge potential for Pratap to add more eyeballs and plans to boost marketing efforts to ensure it a wider reach in weaker markets.
As expected, the advertisement rates are commensurate with the ratings, and when programmes enter the top 10, they command a premium. So, Mahabharat is said to command a 20-25% premium in the prime-time slot, though the deals are very intricate, making exact 10-second spot rates difficult to measure. Usual prime rates for top shows range between 1.0 lakh and 2.5 lakh per 10 seconds, if all four top general entertainment channels are to be considered.
Zenith Optimedia's chief executive, Anupriya Acharya says she is not only an avid fan of Mahabharat, but is also amazed by its quality. "People are done with other fiction and saas-bahu. Media buyers think this is a great genre, cuts across demographics and moms don't mind kids watching as they think it's a little educational as well."