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Medium Term: The Millionaire effect

When I read that 27-year-old Sushil Kumar from Bihar had won Rs 5 crore on Kaun Banega Crorepati, my first

thought was that this was another milestone for KBC. My second thought was that this was yet another instance of what I call the KBC or Millionaire



   No foreign television format has had as significant a relationship with India as Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. When the original Millionaire was a hit in England and America, Star bought the rights for India. In those days, Star Plus was a general entertainment channel along the lines of a terrestrial British or American channel (say BBC One or CBS in New York). It carried entertainment and news along with some documentary-style programming and some panel discussions. Moreover, its content mixed languages. There was some Hindi but there was also a lot of English.


   When Star finally settled complex litigation with Zee TV and was freed from the obligation to ensure that Star Plus was largely an English-language channel, the Star Network took the decision to remove news and to go all Hindi. In those days, Star Plus was a channel that hardly rated so nobody paid much attention to that decision.


   But Star thought that Millionaire could be a game-changer. Its head of programming at the time, Sameer Nair, decided to go for broke. He upped the budget and asked Amitabh Bachchan to host the show.


   This was a precedent-shattering decision. For a start, Millionaire had never been hosted by a major movie star in any country. Usually, the hosts were comedians and TV personalities. Secondly, Bollywood and television land were two completely separate entities. Most Bollywood stars turned their noses up at television, regarding it as beneath them.


   And then, finally, there was the Bachchan problem. Despite having been the greatest star India had ever seen, Amitabh was going through a low phase. His ABCL venture had failed. His debts ran into crores. Producers were reluctant to sign him. His films kept flopping.


   Though Bachchan was astonished when Sameer Nair went to him with the proposal (“You want me to be Roshan Abbas?” he demanded), he was smart enough to listen. He had some idea of the Millionaire phenomenon world-wide. And besides, the producers were not exactly lining up outside his door.


   Eventually, he said yes and Star Plus was re-launched with KBC as its tent-pole property.


   The rest is history. Such was the success of KBC that Star Plus went from being an also-ran to becoming India’s top channel. And Bachchan, who seemed to be on his last legs, suddenly resurrected his career, winning back his fans and becoming the demi-god that he is today.


   In no other country has Millionaire had so much impact. And no other TV show in Indian history has been powerful enough to take a channel to the very top of the ratings.


   Then, there is the Slumdog Millionaire saga. Vikas Swarup’s novel Q&A was based on the KBC craze. Its success pitch-forked Swarup to the front rank of Indian authors. But it also secured him a film deal.


   Hollywood films about India usually do badly. The one exception, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, may have won an Oscar in 1982, but it is largely forgotten today. The Indian film industry has always tried – with such films as Lagaan – to break through to the Western audience. But somehow, our movies lacked a reference point, something familiar that Western audiences could hold on to while they enjoyed the ride through India.


   Millionaire proved to be that reference point. Would Slumdog Millionaire have been such an Oscar-winning critical and commercial sensation without the familiarity of the Millionaire format?


"Who would have thought way back in that era when Star Plus was preparing to go all Hindi and was wondering how to package itself for the new audience that a single show would change everything – for Star, for TV and now, for Bollywood itself?"

   I doubt it. By setting the film around a Millionaire episode, director Danny Boyle found a way to tell a Bombay story in a manner that global audiences readily understood because, Millionaire itself is a global format.


   And now, there is the success of the fifth season of KBC. After three seasons, Star passed on the show. It had wearied of Bachchan, a season with Shah Rukh Khan had been only a moderate success and the channel felt that the appeal of Millionaire as a format was fading.


   Sony stepped in and put the show on the air. The fourth season did okay but the current season has been a runaway success because somebody at the channel had the brilliant idea of moving past jaded metropolitan audiences and targeting viewers in small towns. The format has also been adapted to allow Bachchan to interact more with the small-town contestants and to give them the time and space required to tell their own stories.


   A decade after Millionaire first turned the Indian TV scene upside-down, this season of KBC threatens to do the same. Star Plus is too secure to be disturbed but KBC has had the effect of taking Sony to the number two spot and edging it ahead of Colours, Zee and all the other entertainment channels.


   So that’s four successes in one decade. The Millionaire format has resurrected Amitabh Bachchan, turned Star Plus into a TV power house, won Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire and now has transformed the fortunes of Sony.


   Plus, there is the effect we do not always recognise. The barrier between Bollywood and television land which seemed so forbidding when Sameer Nair first took the offer to Amitabh Bachchan has now collapsed.


   Movie stars now die to be on TV. They love the big bucks. They long for the huge audiences. And they play up to TV channels.


   It doesn’t matter what the show is. If the price is right, a movie star will do it. Should Akshay Kumar have been the host of the first season of Masterchef India? Probably not. But he took the job anyway. Did Amitabh Bachchan add to his credibility by hanging around the Bigg Boss set? I don’t think so. But he laughed all the way to the bank.


   Shah Rukh Khan has hosted three TV shows without any spectacular success. But rest assured that he will be back. Salman Khan has made two shows. Hrithik Roshan has danced awkwardly on Star Plus on his own show. And now, even Aamir Khan is getting ready for TV.


   Who would have thought way back in that era when Star Plus was preparing to go all Hindi and was wondering how to package itself for the new audience that a single show would change everything – for Star, for TV and now, for Bollywood itself?


   Call it the Millionaire effect.




  • Munir 28 Oct 2011

    One factual correction - the reason why Sony got the show was because Sony's parent company Columbia Pictures Television bought the worldwide rights of the show from its original owner.

  • Ashrut Khatter 28 Oct 2011

    Well written Mr. Sanghvi but I feel these 4 successes are the smaller ones, and you are being shallow if you see only these 4 successes. While things did change for AB, Star, Sony and SM, the change was not as big for them as it has been for hundreds of contestants who have won lakhs (if not a C) on this show. Contestants who otherwise would take years to earn that amount or in some cases never in their lifetime! That for me is the MILLIONAIRE EFFECT!!!

  • seema 28 Oct 2011

    i abs agree with u vir singhvi...and mr bachchan is hugely respected .HE IS a trend setter ....sharukh is got a dent in his popularity becaz he tried to de-mean can he even think on this lines..???

Posted On: 28 Oct 2011 10:40 AM
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