Ferzad Palia, senior vice president and general manager, English Entertainment, Viacom18 Media, suggests the need for an English comedy channel was required way before the network launched Comedy Central in January 2012. “We were toying with the idea (of launching a comedy channel) a couple of years before we went on air. Economic viability was the main reason for the delay. The cost of entry on the distribution front was the prohibitive factor,” says Palia.
“Sex and comedy are the two most searched terms in India and all over the world when it comes to entertainment. And, since we couldn’t create a channel relating to sex, it was only natural for us to target comedy. That said, we didn’t have any history to see how English comedy channels had performed and so we knew we had to create demand on television. So we went about testing liking for the genre before launching Comedy Central in India,” he adds.
It was evident that the kind of audience the channel would address led extremely stressed lives - from the time they wake up to when they sleep. So, the insight worked on was that people wanted light entertainment and not content they have to rack their brains on, explains the spokesperson. Another point that helped shape the launch was the explosion in the English language, with more people understanding the language and being well travelled. “The internet played an important role in making the space as well,” he reflects.
With iconic Hindi comedy shows like Dekh Bhai Dekh, Shriman Shrimati and Sarabhai v/s Sarabhai either on re-runs or off air, several GECs have looked to launch to comedy shows. None of them, say industry watchers, captured the audience like the abovementioned shows had. And when the pool was narrowing, SAB TV shifted to a GEC with focus on comedy in June 2008.
According to the channel, because it was the first mover to the comedy category, its viewership grew by 700 per cent from 2008 (14 GRPs to 157 GRPs now.
Anooj Kapoor, business head, SAB TV, attributes this rise to the new positioning. He says, “Till the change, SAB was a youth (positioned) channel not doing too well. When we conducted research, people associated with comedy. So we looked to reposition as a comedy channel. Even when we had big shows like Yes Boss and Office Office, we got only 14 GRPs. Then we moved to only comedy and looked to target soap viewers. We positioned the channel with ‘Asli mazaa sab ke saath aata hai’ and looked to attract the entire audience. That worked wonders.”
Comedy on the internet
With ‘comedy’ being one of the top keywords with respect to entertainment, it was only natural for Google to latch on. Additionally, comedy shows contributed to over 30 per cent of the total watched hours within the TV shows category (online). Using these insights, Google brought property ‘YouTube Comedy Week’ to India on 5 September 2013.
Gautam Anand, director content partnership, YouTube APAC, said, “Along with the fact that comedy contributes over 30 per cent of the TV hours in India, comedy show viewership has seen the fastest growth in the past year.”
During the week ended 12 September 2013, along with clippings from Bollywood movies and comedy shows, YouTube also rolled out 10 new ‘channels’ featuring original programming covering exclusive shows of stand-up comedians, mimicry and slapstick comedy.
Laws and regulations
“It’s a growing democracy and hopefully, in a 100 years we’ll be able to watch everything if we’re still around,” quips Broacha on the regulations imposed by the powers that be.
He was responding to a question on Comedy Central being told to be off air in late May 2013 for a week, because some of its content.
Probed about the incident, Palia says, “The law of the land is the law of the land. To that extent, India is fairly liberal for the kind of population we have and instead of cribbing and crying, it’s the best to move on and follow the regulations.”
So, while the only channels positioned in the comedy genre for English and Hindi speaking audiences are Comedy Central and SAB TV respectively, the options for comedy seeking audiences have definitely increased.
Hindi viewers have options like Colors’ Comedy Nights with Kapil and Comedy Circus on Sony TV, among others.
English speaking audiences have shows across Star World, Zee Café and Big CBS, but Comedy Central’s Palia is of the opinion that these are not enough.
He says, “Television options have grown, but aren’t enough yet. But it’s not only shows or channels. Comedy is a part of one’s everyday life and consumption is also outside of television and comes through digital. In fact, people are now looking to wear T-shirts which have funny one-liners on them. That’s also a way of consuming something funny. People are always trying to be witty on social networks too. These to me are avenues of consumption.”
SAB TV’s Kapoor agrees about the lack of options. “Even if the comedy genre grows, it should be a good thing for us. When Star started with daily soaps, others followed. Yet, Star is doing well and there are about five other channels in the space that are also doing well,” he surmises.
‘In 100 years, we’ll be able to watch everything in India’: Q&A with funny man Cyrus Broacha, on the serious business
Do you believe the Indian consumer has built a larger appetite for humour - we’re seeing TV channels now around it.
‘One man’s comedy is another man’s Macbeth. For a young kid, who’s looking at stand-up comedy there’s lot of option in the big five cities, not for a full time career yet, but for a decent side business. There’s TV, radio, funny books (we think they’re funny atleast) and so the industry has grown. We have comedians everywhere – government, politicians, bureaucrats, businessmen and even sadhus!
Was there a latent demand for comedy as a genre in India? Did the genre pick up too late in India?
Yes, but now there are plenty of options in the market. Comedy Central launched two years ago, there are plenty of options in Hindi. Regional channels are also copying the Hindi channel format, so it’s turning a lot of people to comedy, which is not necessary a good thing because the quality isn’t always the best.
How has comedy as a genre evolved from the time you began to now?
When I started off, it wasn’t even comedy. There was a youth channel called MTV, which only plays ads now, but back then it played music and we used to just do our thing. I was just being me, with no intention of being funny. I couldn’t do anything else; I was competing with Rahul Khanna’s good looks and Nikhil Chinnappa’s music.
There was no conscious effort of being funny. The first reality comedy show was Bakra and then they’ve taken comedy to a new high with Roadies, which again is a different perspective on the genre.
Talking about the evolution, yes, it has grown a lot in the last 10 to 15 years. We’ve got a lot of events, work and things that come through because of so called ‘comedy’.
You mentioned Roadies… Are there enough options for a person seeking comedy in India or does one have to look for humour in other shows?
Yes there is. For instance, the Viral Fever guys do something called the Rowdies (they’re lampooning something that’s already lampooned), but it’s funny. I think when you open the pool, India has a lot of talent. People from all over are trying to get into comedy, which is a good thing. At the same time it’s terrible for us because if better talent enters, we might just be out of business! But so far, I’m not worried because a lot of them are very ugly.
Are Indian audiences as accepting of different kinds of humour as compared to the UK and US?
The audience in India isn’t homogenous.
Even within the English audience, we have different audiences. So, we have to don the marketing hat and figure what works where and be very politically correct in saying the right things to the right people. We’re not like an Australian culture where, there’s only one lot.
Here, we have to see who are we talking to, where we are talking, the income group, what’s going on locally etc. So we have our work cut out. If we get the market right, we have a great time.
Are regulations a dampener? We saw Comedy Central become the first channel to be penalised for content?
Poor Comedy Central. I loved that show Citizen Khan. They’ve taken that out, even though it’s not provoking fun of any religion or anything. If you’ve been to Birmingham, he’s a typical character from the region. It’s that little bit of politics that happen in the area, which was beautifully written. I’m very upset that they’ve taken that off.
There were other shows as well taken off for sexual references and all. But then this is going to happen. It’s a growing democracy and hopefully, in a 100 years we’ll be able to watch everything if we’re still around!
Colors' Comedy Nights with Kapil
John Oliver's New York stand-up show
The article appeared in the issue of Campaign India dated 20 September, 2013