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Why media should pay attention to the changing face of Indian audience

Author: Vivek Agnihotri
Publication: Daily News & Analysis
Date: July 10, 2015
URL: http://www.dnaindia.com/analysis/standpoint-why-media-should-pay-attention-to-the-changing-face-of-indian-audience-2103327

Gone are the days when there was a ‘common’ mass psyche and viewer groups could be segmented either by sex, age or income group.

In the 1949 British film noir, The Third Man, Harry Lime, high on Vienna’s Ferris wheel, justifies his fatal drug dealing by pointing at a pin-head of a human being on the pavement far below. “Surely”, he asks Holly Martins, “for a fortune you wouldn’t bother if one of those dots stopped moving?"

Later Martins, at the insistence of the British Investigating Officer, visits a children’s hospital where he sees Harry’s victims and feels disgusted. He realizes they were not dots. They were real people.

In the business of media, it’s very easy to lose sight of the reality. Soon, the viewers become numbers on a chart. They become TRPs.

Viewers are people. Not dots, digits or a grey impersonal mass of TRPs. They are sentient human beings. Constantly changing. They have feelings, sentiments and varied needs, both overt and below the surface, tangible and intangible, rational, emotional and social. In entertainment business, we all compete to satisfy these needs. But, we can only do this if we constantly try to understand viewers and identify with them.

If a channel or a producer’s understanding of a viewer’s needs is wrong, he will certainly end up making the programme or a movie for the wrong market. I have noticed that many channels lose sight of their viewers and their changing needs.

It’s a sad commentary on the growth of TV and movie business in India that some of the leading channels and production houses don’t have even a small research department to anticipate changes in the marketplace and, in fact, capitalise on these changes. Who is studying the ever-changing audience? Who is trying to identify new trends and ascertain their impact? The only way to stay ahead is to understand the changing audience.

Gone are the days when there was a ‘common’ mass psyche and viewer groups could be segmented either by sex, age or income group. Now, it’s not possible to do this for viewers are segmented by psychographics and lifestyles. It would be wrong to assume that all individuals with an income of Rs.10,000+ or all ‘housewives’ or all ‘men above 55’ respond to a content in the same manner. Today you can’t dismiss a housewife as a ‘saree-clad subordinate in the background’. There are ‘active housewives’, ‘liberal housewives’, ‘progressive housewives’, etc. There is a multi-faceted structure in relationships, value systems, buying patterns and viewing habits.

To understand this one must look at the earlier structure. Perceptions and beliefs as well as responses were governed by a narrow worldview and were generally common. This was primarily because information sources were limited. Viewers’ reality was based on what he was shown. His ‘image-bank’ was limited and the choices were narrow for two reasons. First, he had only a small number of people to imitate or model after, who themselves were limited. Secondly, the messages and images he received came usually, in the form of casual speech or in monotone, mono-channel. Interconnected strings of ideas reinforced by various ‘information givers’. He heard the same ‘Shampoo grays your hair’ or ‘Men work, women rear children’ or ‘Lifebouy hai jahaan…’, thereby narrowing his range of acceptable imagery and behaviour. All this caused unison, a consensus and homogeneity in the viewer’s universe.

For content-makers it was so easy. Create content with most commonly acceptable and comprehendible imagery and it would work right across a segment, a community or a sex group.

Times have changed. With the advent of multi-point, multi-options technology, changes in the job market, the beneficiaries of liberalisation, free-flow of information on internet and social media, new-family structure, emergence of a new pragmatic, result-oriented ‘can-do’ culture and political arrangements, the information and images around us have also changed dramatically.

Today’s viewer does not receive his images from a handful of sources. He has a plethora of newspapers, specialised focussed magazines, AM, FM, local, regional, national and international television, niche programming, and, of course the cyber-world. With social media, information, opinions and trends reach every second.

To survive in today’s world it is vital to revise the image-bank . Older images have to be erased and updated. This speeding up of image changes also makes images fleeting and more temporary. Ideas, beliefs, fashions, attitudes and opinions are formed, reformed, challenged and defied almost every second. Today’s individual has, in fact, become an ‘image-processing unit’.

We live in a world of choices. The viewer has to constantly make a selection, challenging the content-maker to influence his choices in more creative ways. This explosive expansion of the market has resulted in ‘message clutter’ forcing most of the traditionally run content-makers into ‘programming schizophrenia’.

Let’s start with the ‘new woman’. Anybody who tries to portray the ‘new woman’ as cute, sexy or stiff and indifferent… or like a man (expect for the skirt) will not get across to her. She is not a mindless, sexy prop.

Women have emerged as very strong personalities and this has been reflected in our movies and ads. She is in total control of her family. She travels alone in a jacket and skirt and is not willing to sacrifice her seat for flattery. In-laws now acknowledge the new woman’s education, rationality and ability to make choices. From being a passive subordinate restricted to the kitchen, women are now comfortable in a man’s world.

But it requires a very careful understanding of her psyche for intelligent communication. In the process of showing her in a position of authority she is very often shown as a dumb sex object . This ‘new woman’ has certainly posed challenges to the writers.

The other group that has emerged as an important target are teenagers. Despite their fragile sense of self-identity, unsettled beliefs and low loyalty factor, they can’t be ignored.

In fashion, in cosmetics, in hair-care, in bicycles, in beverages, in two-wheelers, in music and entertainment, they are more often than not the ones who set the trend. Their role as influencers in all family decisions has increased. And the success of a soap opera or a movie depends heavily on them. This generation of ‘what works is good’ is difficult to persuade. Conventional marketing techniques are almost useless. By the time a viewer survey is over, the picture has already changed.

The urban teen demography is well informed, exposed and fiercely independent, clear on what they want and not seeking approval. Today’s girl is not dreaming anymore. She walks in to a bachelor’s apartment next door confidently. Flirting is not a bad word. Sexting is in. Yesteryears discarded rebel is being portrayed as a hero. These are definitely the new opinion builders and trendsetters.

The third group, which has changed the face of entertainment is that of children. You can’t con today’s child. They are aware, intelligent, and demanding. The Bournvita girl does not play with dolls. She works on a computer. The ‘new’ child is the product of a changing  patterns. Learning is taking place outside the classroom. Images come from an entirely different set of sources like social media and video games, which do not necessarily conform to the parents' reality. He is not sitting and playing while elders watch TV. He is a participant. Earlier he was not allowed to touch expensive electronic gadgets, now, he is the one who operates the system while elders watch.

Some content-makers have responded to these changes and curiously, have also been responsible for triggering them off. But, only some.

This new viewer is not a statistic in TRP. He is a creative viewer. Making a quick choice in viewing is the most creative thing he does.

If The Third Man was made today, I am sure it would have a dialogue like this: “If you ever feel so far away from viewers that they start appearing like dots, get off the Ferris wheel”.

- The author is a filmmaker, writer and travel junkie. He tweets at @vivekagnihotri
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