How a Bombay mix put the heat on MTV
An Indian youth channel has outstripped its flagging US rival. Jemima Hunt reports
When MTV suddenly bowed out of Rupert Murdoch's Star TV network in May 1994, due to a contractual dispute, Star needed a new youth and music channel, and fast. With only 20 days to get on the air, Star's general manager for Asia and former Time Out editor Don Atyeo decided to pull together a Bombay-based team. Working out of a hotel room, the original cast of three, British producer Ed Sharpels, Indian creative director Shashanka Ghosh and writer Shamin Desai, came up with a winning formula now claiming about 37 million viewers every month. No one could have predicted its monster success.
However, the undisputed fact was that as economic restrictions were finally being lifted in Nineties India, it was time to invest. And, packaged as pop culture, India was fast becoming hip - a reality swiftly exploited by Channel V. Combining irreverent, guerilla-style camera work with self- deprecating humour, Hollywood fetishism and India's own vivid style, it devised the perfect Post-Modern, East-West masala. Something America-dominated MTV had failed to do.
Regardless of MTV's legal wrangles, the music channel's three-year stint in India had not been a success. Arriving in 1991 when Star TV was first beamed in from Hong Kong, the familiar line-up of Beavis and Butthead, Nirvana unplugged and classic Eighties videos did nothing for the Indian audience. After all, this is a country where 600 films are made every year and Hindi music accounts for more than 80 per cent of music sales. Here film stars are idolised to the extent that temples are erected to them, and children from states as far apart as Uttar Pradesh in the north and Goa in the south can sing the latest Hindi pop song. MTV proved a distraction that was largely irrelevant, with the Americans seriously underestimating their host culture.
Atyeo admits: "Having had the luxury of working on MTV Asia, I knew exactly what not to do with Channel V." Thus, the brief was to create a local channel with an international flavour. Having recognised the fundamental importance of strong regional content, Channel V then set about inventing programmes to dissuade surfing and encourage viewing. Key features included cleverly designed Bollywood tie-in shows featuring film snippets and music, glamorous Indian and Anglo-Indian veejays with shows named after them, nationwide roadshows (Radio 1-style events) attracting tens of thousands while being broadcast live, frequent vox pops giving everyone, from Bombay's cricket playing youth to taxi drivers, airtime to talk about sports scores and the secrets of marital bliss. The thing to avoid was back-to-back grunge rock videos.
In addition, a show such as Videocon Flashback, using old Hindi film songs dating back to the Sixties, mimicked by Jafferi, not only rekindled interest in old Bollywood by imbuing it with an ironic, hip factor, but could be watched by teenagers and their mothers alike.
With a cross-cultural team, the use of Hinglish - possibly born of linguistic muddle in India, and an idiom increasingly seen in advertising to the youth market (the catchline for Pepsi being "Yehi hai right choice baby") - naturally followed. Even Star TV news bulletins now employ this eclectic hybrid of English and Hindi.
The crucial factor, then, in guaranteeing Channel V's success, was to cater to viewers' tastes. And, in a country where music is a national obsession, there was plenty to tap into. However, having recognised the mass appeal of Hollywood music, Channel V developed the market further by nurturing their own video stars. Says Atyeo, "We've become godfathers to the world of Hindi pop here in India by taking the limelight away from pure film music."
Proof of this assertion is the smash-hit success of singer Alisha Chinai whose album Made in India gal sold two million copies on the strength of the Channel V-produced video alone - a record figure for a Hindi pop song.
With a population of 900 million people in India, the possibilities for cable television are endless. MTV moved back this past June, and where there were two television stations four years ago, there are now 80 and climbing. Channel V has become an institution. "Eventually we'll be producing sports, game shows, travel shows and issue-based programmes," says Atyeo. "We've built up a loyal Indian audience; because our channel is based here in Bombay and not in Hong Kong, the results speak for themselves. I'm just here to steer it."
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