?There is one phrase Mayali Ghosh will not type into the Google search bar – "MasterChef Australia Season 5". No, she doesn't hate the show. In fact she loves it. Ghosh, a 40-year-old professional translator based out of Calcutta, says, "Whenever the season is on, all I can think about through the day is getting back home and tuning in." But surely there's nothing wrong in wanting to be up-to-date with every little thing that's happening on your favourite TV show? The problem, of course — and this is a bigproblem in the Internet age — Spoilers!
When a popular TV show airs in India well after the date it appears on foreign television screens, it's only too likely that a simple Google search will throw up a bunch of links discussing numerous aspects of each episode. For others, like Amit Malhotra, a young designer in his mid-twenties working with Dorling Kindersely, torrent sites or free-streaming portals are the only option. "Not only are these sites updated with the latest episodes, I have the choice of watching whichever episode I want to. Sometimes I watch a complete season over a weekend." Binge-watching of this sort is quite prevalent among those who closely follow and watch a lot of foreign shows – still, however, a niche group – in India because of the unavailability of recently aired episodes.
But all this has changed in the last year. In 2013, full digitisation was introduced, which has meant that digital networks started airing a greater number of channels and offering a wider variety. Most interesting is the impact this has had on the increase in viewership of English language entertainment channels, which have seen a huge spike in viewership numbers, about 40%. Channels like Star Premiere now air the same season and episode of a particular show, at the same time they're aired in the US. Most of these shows in the US are broadcasted weekly. Earlier channels in India would wait for the 32-week run of a season, or sometime a 44-week run, and then air them as a daily series. This meant that the audience for such shows, mostly English-speaking and urban, turned to piracy (via the Internet) to watch the most recent episode of the show they loved. But with the introduction of new channels, and changing broadcasting logistics, viewers now have a direct interest in subscribing to these channels. "Watching these shows on your television screen, especially now with HD technology, makes for a far better viewing experience than watching them on your laptop. Web uploads can have poor video and audio quality, so the viewing experience suffers. Plus, I want to watch TV, I grew up with it, and now that it has shows that I like, up-to-date," says Anita Seth, a freelance writer from Hyderabad.
Audiences who watch English programmes might overlap the numbers who also watch Hindi shows, but the people who form the base for Hindi viewership seldom intersect with those who watch English programmes, yet again demonstrating that it is still an extremely niche group.
Other networks have adopted similar broadcasting policies. According to Ferzad Palia, the head of English entertainment at Viacom 18, "We air Anger Management on Comedy Central, 24 hours after the US broadcast. English language entertainment is destined to be one of the key players in the media and entertainment industry. In terms of revenue generation, there is still some way to go. But we are focusing more on reaching out and hence subscriptions are what need to be focused on."
Kevin Vaz, business head, English channels, Star India shares this opinion. "It is a fact," he says, "that the cost for a spot on Star Plus, our premiere Hindi GEC (general entertainment channel) is way more than a spot on our other English language channels. But you have to understand that the former is for a mass audience, while the latter, though rapidly expanding, is for a very specific audience. When it comes to absolute costs right now, it is not as significant. But then again, advertisers are keen to tap into this new market, because we are in the process of reaching these viewers through subscription. In the coming years, increasing subscription will be of prime importance."
Palia adds that the next three years will be crucial for the market for English language programmes to settle. "If you compare costs, the difference between HD and regular channels, through DTH, is not much. Yet HD technology has not picked up much. Similarly, with broadening our viewer base, it will take some time for audiences to understand what is on offer, and also realise that they now they have a choice to opt for exactly what they want. We know this from our experience with VH1, which was launched almost 9 years ago. It has become the channel for English music in this country but the transformation was not overnight."
Anurag Bedi, an Executive Vice President at ZEE, believes that the spread of English education is changing the market once and for all. "In the future, this demand will only increase. There is enough potential for the audience base to expand. Piracy is a big problem and subscription is the route to tackle this. The solution to this could be getting the new shows and the latest seasons of the shows being currently aired as close to the US airing as possible. The closer a show is aired to the US, the more are the chances of getting the viewer to consume the content on the channel rather than consuming it via piracy."
One thing that clearly stands out is that in terms of viewership, English language entertainment itself is quite small, with roughly 1% share in the industry, according to Bedi. The market for Hindi and English GECs are incomparable. Audiences who watch English programmes might overlap the numbers who also watch Hindi shows, but the people who form the base for Hindi viewership seldom intersect with those who watch English programmes, yet again demonstrating that it is still an extremely niche group.
Palia says, "It is important to reduce inertia – audiences should not be pushed to subscribe. Once they are made to understand how easy it is to subscribe, and they realise that it is well within their dispensable income, subscriptions will increase." Presently, broadcasters are focusing on the major metros to promote their English channels. The reason behind this is that the present one million viewer base is concentrated in these urban centres, according to Vaz. But owing to work-related internal migration, a lot of non-metro cities are identified as potential centres of business. Though the Internet has limited business opportunities for broadcasters by hosting shows online, it has also opened doors for a new audience to develop, as increased access has resulted in increased awareness. Techno-sociality is playing a major role, as social media sites are abuzz with posts and discussions about the latest development in Game of Thrones, or How I Met Your Mother. "I was introduced to a lot of new shows because my friends on Facebook are always posting about them. Thanks to them, I am completely hooked to The Big Bang Theory and Dexter," says Arjun Desai, an undergraduate student at Delhi University.
English language entertainment certainly seems to be the next untapped "big thing" in television. Gone are the days when you had to rely on your cable operator to provide a channel you want to watch. Chances are, by the time MasterChef Australia comes back with its sixth season, Ghosh won't be afraid to Google for the latest on her favourite show.