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Is fantasy a diminishing genre on TV?

MUMBAI: It was in the 1980s that fantasy as a genre first emerged on television. ‘Space City Sigma’ and ‘Indradhanush’ were among the first shows on DD National that showcased an imaginary realm.

These early shows eventually made way for ‘Chandrakanta’, ‘Vikram Aur Betaal’ and ‘Alif Laila’, shows whose fan following remains unmatched even today.

The birth of new satellite television channels saw a few more shows in this genre appealing to viewers. These included ‘Sonpari’, ‘Shararat’, ‘Shaktimaan’, ‘Aladdin’ and more.

However, since the 1990s, there has been a lull in the fantasy genre space, and the shows have stopped delivering the kind of viewership and returns it garnered earlier. This resulted in broadcasters slowly shying away from such shows.

There are only three broadcasters presently venturing into the realm of fantasy—Zee TV with its recently launched ‘Maharakshak Aryan’, SAB with ‘Baalveer’ and Life OK’s recently concluded ‘The Adventures of Hatim’. However, TV executives put ‘Mahadev’ and Sony Pal’s ‘Singhasan Battisi’ as part of the same genre as well.

The aspect that comes to the fore is that there is a lack of pure fantasy on television nowadays. Most of the shows mentioned above are a mix of fantasy and history, or fantasy and mythology. While TV broadcasters think of it as a good strategy, agency executives think otherwise.

Divya RadhakrishnanHelios Media MD Divya Radhakrishnan states, “Our history and mythology are strong, which is why fantasy shows do not do well in our country. Fantasy is a different genre altogether and we do not see many of those shows these days. In comparison, overseas they do not have a strong history or mythology, so fantasy shows work well there.”

Fantasy stories demand a certain scale and their proper execution is a challenge. The magic carpet of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ does not appeal to viewers anymore. Even kids now have exposure to more fantastical content, thanks to international TV series and films.

Dheeraj KumarCreative Eye Productions founder Dheeraj Kumar says, “Fantasy takes you beyond the realm of reality and does not only depend on special effects. The story should have moral value and entertainment. So stories inspired by the Jataka tales and ‘Panchatantra’ will work, but the Alibaba and magic carpet types won’t.”

Script writer Purnendu Shekhar agrees: “’Chandrakanta’ had a huge fan following, but if it is shown today, there won’t be as many takers for it. This is because TV during those days was a comparatively new medium and people didn’t have much exposure. Hence, the challenge for broadcasters is to create something new and distinguishable.”

Purnendu ShekharAs a result, fantasy is a combination of history and mythology and a standalone fantasy will not work because children now have vast exposure to other fantasy content.

Still, the question is why broadcasters are wary about doing fantasy-based shows.

Sony Pal and SAB senior EVP and business head Anooj Kapoor says that in the old days the fantasy shows on DD were a weekly affair. Later, ‘Shararat’ and ‘Sonpari’ on Star Plus were also weekly shows. This was followed by the trend of dailies.

Anooj Kapoor

Anooj Kapoor

“Fantasy shows need a lot of visual effects. So if you are producing it five days a week, you need to do a lot of special VFX work, which is very difficult. This is the reason that most of the channels do not venture into this territory,” Kapoor says.

Another aspect to be noted is that most of these shows have not rated too well on the charts, and have typically maintained an average viewership of 0.3 to 2 TVTs. Besides, none of the shows from these broadcasters have made it to the top 10 shows list since their launch.

Life OK EVP and GM Ajit Thakur states, “’Hatim’ at its peak was doing 2.5–3 TVRs, but fantasy doesn’t get you ratings. It’s the right slot and marketing that gets you the ratings.”

Ajit Thakur

Ajit Thakur

While ratings and the right positioning pose a challenge, high production costs also act as a deterrent.

Kumar says, “In this era of daily soaps, the challenge is to develop these shows with a large team working 24×7 with a special focus on VFX. You have to maintain deadlines, quality, modify the sets accordingly, get in new characters and more, which is a daunting task.”

However, writing a story in this genre is easier than coming up with the right production set-up. It is also difficult for the producers to combine fantasy and reality.

Kapoor adds, “With ‘Baal Veer’ and ‘Jeannie Aur Juju’, we understood how to master that art. We do only a certain percentage of graphics and special effects so that you can sustain the fantasy element on an ongoing basis.”

‘Baal Veer’ is produced by Vipul Shah, ‘Singhasan Battisi’ by Dheeraj Kumar, ‘Maharakshak Aryan’ by Nitin Keni, and ‘Hatim’ and ‘Mahadev’ were produced by Nikhil Sinha.

According to Kapoor, if there was a lack of scope for other genres, then differentiated movies would not have gained much commercial success for the past 5 to 10 years.

karthikMadison Media COO Karthik Lakshminarayanan is of the view that fantasy as a genre has moved on and people today prefer watching fictionalised reality. Advertisers too have moved on; there is no reason why an advertiser will come on board, as the shows are consumed by a miniscule audience.

However, broadcasters defend by saying that acceptance is something that they will work towards. They will build the genre, as everyone should take risks.

Zee TV programming head Namit Sharma states, “More than ROI, there is a need for variety in the programming mix. It is our way of reaching out to those viewers who are necessarily not consuming us Monday to Friday.”

Namit Sharma - Zee TV Programming Head at the launch of Neeli Chhatri WaaleGetting eyeballs for a fantasy show is difficult. Kids form the primary target audience of such shows, but some broadcasters have also attempted youth fantasy shows with little success.

But there is a younger 14–25 TG that is also interested in these shows if done well. Sharma says that Zee TV with shows like ‘Naagin’ have proven in the past that fantasy shows can appeal to all audiences irrespective of gender and age.

“We are writing to appeal to all age groups and we are working to get the genre up and running for a larger audience,” he adds.

For Thakur, ROI is not a challenge. “For the right product we get the right money from the advertisers. And typically you won’t do 10 of them; it will only be one at a time. But fantasy is an important part of the mix,” he explains.

The shows also involve steep budgets, so it is difficult for broadcasters to put a fantasy unless it gives good ratings.

Kapoor says that the economics works well for him, because the budget for his fantasy shows is only about 10 per cent higher than the budget for a normal show.

Many of these shows are being dubbed into regional Indian languages like Bhojpuri and Tamil. So these shows have a huge potential in repeat telecast value, giving the broadcasters small but certain returns.

Lakshminarayanan adds that broadcasters have to keep every genre alive. “They took some kids fantasy shows and put it in the youth space, but the strategy didn’t work. Unless you have something that gives good numbers, advertisers won’t latch on to it. So they will either have to stop trying or have to succeed now.”

Thakur aptly concludes, “Fantasy is an interesting genre driven primarily by kids, but if you do it right, you will also have enough adults tuning in. I think it will work if the GECs can offer something for kids in the early primetime. This is because kids watch more GECs than kids channels. The genre is very under-explored, which entails a huge opportunity. It gives viewers a different alternative to soaps.”