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Friday, January 6, 2012

What it means to be an entertainment television production professional

AFREEN RAHMAN
Commits alumna AFREEN RAHMAN (Class of 2010), who is an assistant producer with Zoom in Mumbai, gives us some interesting insights into the entertainment television industry:

What was I thinking when I took this job?!

My parents were puzzled, friends laughed, and the best part was that even I was confused. Why did I want to be part of the entertainment media industry? Because I wanted to be in Bollywood? No, if you really want to know, I wanted to be Kareena Kapoor. Well, that’s my subconscious mind talking but I was always curious to know what lies behind this glitzy world called Bollywood.

While I was an avid reader of Filmfare and Stardust, it was Ramesh Sir and Sai Sir at Commits who made me read novels (Salman Rushdie… how can I ever forget him?) and then write reviews. I would run, hide, do everything to avoid what I thought of as a tedious task… but I would still somehow submit the article.

And now I am writing yet another.

WHAT IS ENTERTAINMENT?

Entertainment is a term that has been used and abused many a time in this industry. An industry where reality shows claim to be unscripted and soaps and serials have become entirely predictable. What is entertainment then? The dictionary would say “agreeable occupation for the mind”, but a senior producer of an entertainment channel would put it as “art meets science and creativity meets news”.

Well, working for a television channel dedicated to Bollywood did give me thrills initially but, as time went by, I realised it’s not easy to create the drama, to create the hype, and to make celebrities look larger than life, especially when it came to celebs who are completely different from the perceptions people have of them. Like chalk and cheese, if I may say so. Don’t believe me? Here’s choreographer Sandip Soparrkar on Katrina Kaif: “She is a cold fish how can she be any man’s desire?” Meanwhile ad guru Prahlad Kakkar doesn’t even want to acknowledge the presence of Akshay Kumar on the Bollywood circuit. This is the reality off camera.

WATCH ZOOM'S RED-HOT COUNTDOWN HERE. THIS IS ONE OF THE MANY SHOWS AFREEN RAHMAN PRODUCES FOR ZOOM.

DAILY DRAMA
Being designated a producer might seem all fancy-shmancy but the daily real-life drama that I am part of at work makes for more absorbing entertainment than any soap or serial.

As for deadline pressures, we often hear people cribbing about meeting deadlines; well, I have learnt deliver before deadline. That is expected of us today.

A day in the life of a professional in my industry would ideally begin at 9:30 a.m.; mine begins at 11 a.m. Why? Let me just say it’s a time-management issue. You see, I need to work closely with my scriptwriter who racks her brains to write lines in Hindi (which is not my forte). But she needs constant briefing because she tends to get carried away and writes at great length, which ultimately needs heavy editing keeping the episode duration in mind! (There have been times when, while speaking to her on the phone, I have dozed off.)  Then there’s my forever-demanding editor who feels there is never enough footage to edit a link. So even if I leave office at 1 a.m., I am on call till 4 a.m.

The next day, even as I board the train and squeeze myself into a seat I am coordinating with the voiceover artist and my post-production head, AND updating my senior because she wakes up after a good night’s sleep and wants to know if her posterior is going to be on fire or not! To top it all, if the updates don’t go out on time, 8-1-1 (my extension) does not stop ringing. Any wonder why I sometimes feel like dialling 9-1-1?

RESEARCH IS A MUST
Television shows are mostly shoot-based or edit-based. Therefore research on your subject is a must, else audience and stars alike feel cheated and you end up like a popular newspaper supplement that showers rumours and unverified gossip on its readers daily. Zoom editor-in-chief Omar Qureshi, who is a veteran film journalist and ex-editor of Stardust, has a personal rapport with most of B-Town’s A-listers, but he would still face the heat if something that was concocted appeared on the channel. He knows, however, that if his background research is foolproof, nothing can deter him from stating the truth.

Now my research is all about news… Bollywood news! It helps to be updated and be ahead of time. In Bollywood we have a mix of everything not just gossip and glamour so entertainment reporting is not really that different from crime reporting or political reporting, which, by the way, makes headlines every day. Here you dig deeper because surely the life of every celebrity is worth talking about!

ARE WE SAVING LIVES?

I often hear people saying, “Be passionate about your work”, “Content is king”, “Be available round the clock”. And then I have friends saying (not asking, just saying), “Are you saving lives?” No, I don’t have any clear answers yet to such questions, but, yes, even if we are passionate about work and our content has given us TRPs (what every channel thrives on), the way I see it is that we are fighting with rivals and saving the channel’s reputation. Here is an incident that underlines my viewpoint:

I had recently produced an episode titled “Bindass Celebs of Bollywood”, a countdown show. One week after it first went on air, when the repeats were on during prime time on a Saturday, somebody somewhere tuned into Zoom and watched the episode. The following day, a Sunday, I received a call and I was asked to report to work by 10 a.m. for a meeting with the programming head, the CEO, and my senior producer. Whoa! I had a lunch plan! Which I cancelled and then crawled to work not knowing what had happened.

Programming team meetings are usually fun; we spend a lot of time sometimes discussing the quirks of some of our stars (we get many interesting details from our reporters). But that day the room had a different air. As I sat down mentally prepared to tune out, I was asked the first question: Why did I do an episode called “Bindass Celebs of Bollywood”? Well, this can’t be bad, I thought. As I sat up straight to reveal the inside story and cover myself in glory, the CEO pounced on me: How dare I use the word “Bindass”. I was taken aback. I had no idea what I had done wrong.

Until it struck me suddenly that UTV Bindass is our rival channel. Oh boy!

I won’t go into details of what followed, but I surely wanted to quit then and there. Just as this thought was crystallising in my mind, Monisha Singh, the programming head, broke the silence that was taking up precious Sunday time: “Entertainment in television is very different from movies. One has to be aware that along with creativity (read creating news) comes strategic planning. Budgets, business angle of the channel, changing tastes of the audience, relationship with the stars it all adds up to create the channel’s offering.” I think all she could have said was “Be careful next time” instead of this long-winded elucidation. :-)

KEEPING THE TARGET AUDIENCE IN MIND
In our industry, along with the actors, different media houses have learned to co-exist. One cannot survive without the other and, hence, both try to maintain a balance in this need-based “relationship”. Even as one gathers information for the various shows, one must never forget that every minute of every show is important. Therefore, a fervent desire to tap the pulse of the channel’s target audience should be in the DNA of every individual who is part of the 24x7 media circuit. To be sensitive and be sensible while narrating a story is as important as tracking the competition closely and outdoing them in the very same race. This part of our job may not be written down in the appointment letter but that is what decides our growth in any media organisation.

Speaking of target audiences, here’s reality TV producer Priyanka Kochhar on show formats that work and show formats that don’t: “Beauty and the Geek might have been popular in America but the same show failed in India because it couldn’t cater to an audience that wants masala and gossip in reality shows. Bigg Boss, on the other hand, rakes in higher revenues than Big Brother because it stimulates the audience’s mind with some much-needed juice.”

Now you know why, when deciding the format or the flow of a production-based show, one has to be very clear whose addiction one is feeding. If the TG, or target group, is “15 to 24”, it’s not the metro youngsters that we are cashing in on. It’s those kids in Kanpur, Noida, Nagpur, and Lucknow who come into the picture. Would they prefer Shah Rukh over Shahid, or Hrithik over Ranbir…ohhh! It’s a never-ending debate. Simi Chandoke, editor-in-chief of Lifestyle and Society at Times Television Network justifies this stance: “It’s only your TG that matters; it’s better to be honest with your viewers and readers than with the celebrity you interview.”

So, as I come to the end of my day and this article, I would say that no matter how difficult it is to cope with the incessant demands made on your time, you have to realise that your life in entertainment television is very different from that of your friends in other sections of the television industry. I believe they have a life, while we, apparently, slave to make space for the living. Competition is tough, there is always someone waiting outside the door to take your chair and maybe do the same work even better. And the pay sucks at my level!

CHANGING LIVES

Then why do I still do what I do?

Because when I go off to sleep for the few hours I can manage to, I have a smile on my face, a smile which comes from knowing that the day was well-spent! Even if I am not saving lives, thousands of Bollywood lovers actually look forward to MY show. Even if I am not Kareena Kapoor, I am a celebrity in my own little world no other job gives you that kind of status. In my own way, I am changing the lives of dreamy-eyed youngsters in this country and that is no small achievement and no small responsibility.

And, for the Parthian shot, here are a few things I have learnt from experience: If you want to enjoy what you do be different, wear a T-shirt to a formal meeting, chew gum (and people’s brains), laugh aloud and gossip in whispers, indulge in small talk, call in sick when the Oscars are on, sleep with your eyes wide open in meetings, and never ever cheat where work is concerned.