“I don’t see broadcasting as something that will stay on beyond two years,” declares Abhigyan Jha, founder and CEO of Underground Productions. “It’s going to crumble far more quickly than print did. It’s going to happen overnight, you’re going to suddenly see there’s no one watching TV and it’s all on the internet or it’s all on the mobile, and that shift will happen with one big programme, maybe a big reality show like American Idol or something, it will just suddenly happen that it doesn’t get any viewership on TV, or the viewership is really low on TV but huge on other platforms, and when that happens it’s the end of broadcasting as we know it.”
“Revolutionary” is an overused word, but there is something genuinely revolutionary about India’s Undercover Productions.
“India was pretty much like the UK were you didn’t have much of an independent programme industry,” says Jha, remembering when he founded Undercover Productions, initially as a publishing venture, back in 2007. “Unlike in the US where the programmes are developed independently by people and sold to broadcasters and the production companies continue to hold a large chunk of the copyright.”
It was a set-up bound to create some resentment on the part of production companies, since a successful production tended to benefit the broadcasters almost exclusively, so that when Undercover Productions felt ready to take its first plunge into television, in 2009, initially determined to only offer their content to broadcasters if they could retain at least some ownership of the rights, their next giant leap was arguably also a small, logical step – namely, not offering it to a broadcaster at all, and unleashing the world’s first full format TV show exclusively for the internet, ‘Jay Hind!’, a comedy chat show in the vein of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
“In 2009, worldwide, there were no full length TV shows on the internet – there was nothing thirty minutes long, at least that appeared regularly. If there was a thirty minute episode that somebody made it would not appear regularly. So we decided to do something twice a week, a minimum twenty minutes an episode, with television talent, with television production costs – very, very high quality – and we also became the first HD show in India. I mean we had to learn this entirely new approach… and in the meantime we started getting millions and millions of views for our show, which of course was phenomenal, especially since in 2009 there were only 56 million internet users in India.”
The show’s instant success certainly caught its creators by surrprise, who had planned not to make a second episode until it had amassed a million views, something they were advised to expect taking around six months – in actual fact it was to take just ten days.
The team had the world’s first online television hit on their hands. And by the time Netflix had fully entered the fray with House of Cards (a full four years later), Jay Hind! was the also the world’s first internet show to compete alongside regular TV shows, and had received award nominations for 6 categories by the jury of “Indian Television Academy,” and won two, beating shows from 500 broadcast TV channels.
In fact, its uniqueness was such that the Indian Television Academy had to redefine its criteria for admittance, and Jha is especially animated about the way the new ecosystem is demanding a re-evaluation of what we mean by television. “It doesn’t matter if it comes by satellite or terrestrial,” he points out, “because otherwise why are these not two completely different things, so when black and white became colour, and terrestrial became satellite, nobody made a distinction, so why make a distinction now when it is being delivered via the internet?”
So how should we define it?
“Television has periodicity, that is its first nature, that it has two three four five or six seasons or whatever – one-time shows are not called television programmes. The second aspect of television is appointment viewing – its appearance is scheduled. If you can just record a video any time you like, that’s not television. And the other thing is that it should be made by television professionals, using television standards, with the certain degree of quality that we all assume masking television programmes. And the fourth one is of course that it should be viewable on a television set. It can be transmitted using any technology, and it should be finally viewable on a television set.”
It’s a definition, Jha thinks, that nicely fits the emergent wider reality.
“We cannot force the consumer anymore, we cannot tell him you’ve got to watch this on Fox or wherever, because they want to watch it where they are. It’s just like any other product. Yet Netflix made House of Cards and they hold on to it. The whole world wants to watch House of Cards, but they’re not giving it to anyone, which is bizarre. They should have retailed it – if they had retailed it they would have made billions of dollars, but they didn’t, despite the huge interest. No one cares about Netflix – people care about House of Cards. No one cares about ABC or CBS, they care about the Voice or American Idol or The Jay Leno show or Jimmy Kimmel Live!: it’s the shows. Previously, there was no other way to consume the shows. Today you can have only the show, you don’t need to buy the network.”
And as for the end of broadcasting (as we know it)…
“It could happen any day,” Jha concludes, with total, casual conviction, “it could happen tomorrow morning, because all the conditions for it to happen are already present.”
Abhigyan Jha will be appearing at TV Connect Asia, 2014 (29-30th April, Suntec, Singapore). For booking and info go here