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SMJ: Rewriting TV's rule book

SMJ: Rewriting TV's rule book

Author | exchange4media News Service | Tuesday, Jul 31,2012 8:55 PM

SMJ: Rewriting TV's rule book

Late in 2009, STAR India CEO Uday Shankar sought out actor Aamir Khan, with the precise intention of working with him on a project. Shankar did not have any fixed thoughts – the prime purpose was to convince Khan to be involved with STAR. Khan not only welcomed the prospect but also had a few ideas of his own on the project. Three years later, on May 6, 2012, the STAR India-Aamir Khan combo materialised on screen in the form of Satyamev Jayate.

SMJ, as the show is popularly called, had three driving points – Aamir Khan’s foray into television, a platform provided by one of India’s largest media networks – STAR India and a concept that looked to highlight social issues in great depth and detail. Media and Adland giants argue that it is this trinity that made SMJ one of the most talked about television properties in recent times.

Building the big push
Once the game was afoot, STAR India and Aamir Khan Productions gave each other maximum support on SMJ. Khan stepped back from virtually every other commitment he had, including movie projects and endorsements and limited his public appearances. So much so that, according to an executive on the show, Khan deferred the release date of his movie ‘Talaash’ so that it did not coincide with the 13-week telecast period of SMJ.

STAR, on its part, rewrote a few ground rules. It unleashed a large scale marketing campaign with an unprecedented nine-channel simulcast and even struck deals with competing channels, choosing an unconventional time slot for a celebrity like Aamir Khan. It also revisited its international distribution deals to ensure that SMJ was telecast across all markets in which STAR had a presence and created a digital platform – including social media – to allow viewers to interact on issues that would be raised by the show.

Together, the two assembled a robust research team, took a cutting edge approach to various social issues affecting India and attempted to create a buzz with the show. SMJ required almost two years of production work before it went on air. A 20-hour brainstorming session at Panchgani, led by Khan and Shankar, finalised the 12 issues the show would focus on.

SMJ’s production involved intense discussions on the multimedia format of content dissemination. Shankar revealed that a multi-pronged approach to the show was part of the core planning process. For the first time, the content of a reality show was shared with public broadcaster Doordarshan’s DD National as well as regional broadcasters such as ETV Telugu and Asianet, of which ETV belonged to a competing company. Achieving this scale worked in favour of the show. It received critical response in many international markets where it was broadcast too. Close to five per cent of the total online responses to SMJ came from overseas markets.

Aggregating viewers
The show, given its nine-channel simulcast format, highlighted the concept of aggregate viewership. As per the latest data available, which represents viewership of 11 episodes, the show reached close to 49 crore Indians. While Star Plus was the lead contributor to this number, over 20 per cent of total viewership was registered by Doordarshan. The Sunday morning time band on television came alive as rating of the 11AM – 12.30PM slot shot up by 7.25 times after the inaugural episode.

The response to the first episode on Twitter was unprecedented for any show on television. As per a global social media research firm, The WIT, SMJ was most popular show on social media, not just in India but across the globe. The fan page of the show had 5,49,000 ‘likes’ on the day of its premiere, and added another 50,000 with its debut. On Twitter, its popularity grew 105 per cent in one day. It was also the most commented-on new show of the month, worldwide, according to the WIT ranking.

What came as the biggest surprise to the STAR team was the response to the show on digital platforms. SMJ registered over a billion impressions online. “We expected the show to work on digital media but even we had not anticipated a billion impressions. It has never happened before, so how could one expect it,” asked Shankar.

With over 1.3 million ‘likes’ of its Facebook page and over 30 million views of the show on YouTube, it stood out as the first successful TV show on digital platforms. There were thousands of negative responses to the show too, but the broadcaster believes that negative feedback initiated debates which worked in favour of SMJ. “People were consuming SMJ on TV and reacting on digital media. A seamless transition was happening, a back and forth between TV and new media,” explained Shankar.

A response felt across audiences
While it is difficult to quantify the social and political impact of SMJ, a few outstanding initiatives by institutions and individuals assert that the show made an impact. In the wake of the first episode, the Central and several State governments expressed the need to change laws that deal with ultrasound clinics and establish fast-track courts to deal with cases of female foeticide. One may recall that the Rajasthan government was the first in the country to initiate action against offenders. The Madhya Pradesh government took action against 65 Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) clinics. However, the impact did not stop at that.

Post the child sex abuse episode, the show received tremendous response from children and their parents who would not speak up otherwise. At the peak of the discussions, Khan was invited to meet the Prime Minister and a parliamentary committee. “The show may get over, but the echo of the show will continue because that’s an irreversible process. We were very clear that we wanted to use the power of television to bring change in society,” Shankar said.

There is little doubt among industry leaders that SMJ revived the Sunday morning viewership pattern of Indian audiences almost after a decade, thanks to a bold step by both, Aamir Khan and STAR India. This slot appears to have gained significant importance for broadcasters. Taking a cue from Star’s successful experiment, other broadcasters such as Zee TV and Colors are also gearing up to launch new properties in the 11AM Sunday slot to drive viewership. Meanwhile, STAR will fill SMJ’s slot with another socially relevant show, ‘Laakhon mein ek’.

TV as an agent of change
Though Khan and STAR India constantly reiterate that the aim of SMJ was to bring about change through dialogues and discussions, the bigger question is whether television can bring about such changes. The show’s reach and the critical response it received demonstrated that Indian audiences are ready to consume thought-provoking content. When asked whether Indian GECs are ready to take up socially relevant subjects, Shankar commented that the response to SMJ reaffirms his belief that Indian consumers are ready for serious content.

GECs are also experimenting with programming to bring socially significant shows to their audiences. Shankar says that the job of the media is not to create social revolutions overnight; therefore, social reforms are not possible with just 13 episodes of a show. However, SMJ dug up issues, offered information and context on complex societal subjects. Socially relevant content of this kind will become bigger in the country in the coming days, said Shankar. “There is a future for content and discourses like this,” he commented, adding that STAR India is at the peak of its success with SMJ. “It is the highest point for us so far. It was a journey that started with shows such as ‘Aap ki Kachhehri’, ‘Pratigya’, ‘Sach ka Saamna’ and ‘Kaali’. Serious and intense content is very much on the cards for STAR India, but the objective would be to differentiate. If we were slaves to any format, we would not have done SMJ,” Shankar concluded.

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