December 2010
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Entertainment Channels mull reality shows on Politicians

The launch of Sarah Palin’s Alaska, an eight-part series on the former US vice-presidential candidate, on US television has left Indian broadcast executives wondering if they, too, could feature political lives on their channels.

Sarah Palin’s Alaska debuted on TLC, Discovery Communications Inc.’s travel and lifestyle channel, on US screens on Sunday. The company plans to bring the programme to India in the first half of 2011, said Rahul Johri, senior vice-president and general manager, Discovery Networks, Asia-Pacific.

“The show’s launch in India will be a good way to test the Indian market and gauge audience reaction,” he said.

Nikhil Madhok, head of marketing and communications at Imagine, the Hindi general entertainment channel of Turner General Entertainment Networks India Ltd, agrees with Johri, saying a reality show on a politician is “an interesting idea for sure”.

Reality shows are fast becoming the staple of Hindi general entertainment channels such as Imagine. Although politics dominates print and broadcast news coverage in the country, the personal lives of politicians have largely evaded media invasion—until now.

“Since Imagine does cutting-edge reality shows with innovative formats, it won’t be a surprise if the channel is the first to do a reality show centred around a politician,” Madhok said.

Politicians, he added, are celebrities in their own right, and a number of people would be interested in knowing more about them. But he clarified that Imagine has no immediate plans to start such a show.

People with political links have occasionally appeared on Indian reality shows. Sanjay Nirupam of the Congress party was a participant in Bigg Boss, on Colors channel, in 2008, but faced early elimination. Rahul Mahajan, the son of late Bharatiya Janata Party leader Pramod Mahajan, has featured in several reality shows.

But executives also point out that Sarah Palin’s Alaska kind of shows will not be easy to create and market in India.

Anupam Vasudev, executive president of marketing at Star India Pvt. Ltd, said a lot depends on the choice of the politician.

“Sarah Palin is a huge political figure (in the US) and that’s why a reality series based on her life would be interesting. In India, however, it is tough finding political figures that enjoy credibility among people and have enough interest value,” he said.

“Politicians in India tend to be guarded about their private lives and won’t give us complete access—a must in reality shows,” said Madhok of Imagine. “That’s a major reason why we have’t seen politicians on reality shows in a big way.”

Another concern is that Indian television channels are not used to planning programmes for the long term. “These are in-depth shows and require planning. Sarah Palin’s Alaska was planned more than a year ago,” said Discovery’s Johri. “Indian channels, with their tendency to chase ratings, need to plan such shows much in advance.”

Sarah Palin’s Alaska, reportedly produced at $1 million (Rs.4.51 crore) per episode, will show former Alaska governor Palin and her family, including her husband and five children, sharing day-to-day moments and bonding through activities such as trekking, salmon fishing and so on.

In the run-up to its launch, the show has also faced criticism in the US media. A Time magazine report wondered if the show is really “the world’s most expensive political ad?” Another report on The Daily Beast quotes an anonymous former aide of Palin calling it a “season-long bio ad, free of charge”.

Palin is widely expected to run for the US presidential primaries of the Republican party in 2012.

Smita Jha, a media analyst at audit and consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers India, said such shows would target a limited audience. “Also, these are expensive shows,” she said. Fiction shows in India cost Rs.10-15 lakh per episode to make, while reality shows with celebrities cost Rs.25-30 lakh an episode or more.

Jha agrees that reality shows featuring well-known politicians are bound to attract advertisers.

A media buyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the freshness of the format will bring in advertisers. “Such a show will attract big names from the telecom, auto and finance sectors.”

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