THE sluice-gates were yanked open by the Hinduja-owned cable-delivered movie channel, Cable Video Opera (CVO). The 'premiere' of San-jay Leela Bhansali's b-o dud Khamoshi last July clicked famously on the boob-tube and the trickle quickly turned into a torrent. Sony Entertainment Television followed the CVO example with the telecast of recent releases like Judaai, Rangeela, 1942: A Love Story and Hum Aapke Hain Koun. Now, Star Plus has jumped on to the Bollywood bandwagon. And Zee TV is waiting in the wings to tap the unquenchable thirsts for potboilers in a movie-crazy nation.
It's Blockbuster Time as satellite and cable channels vie with each other to exploit the goldmine that recent superhits represent on prime time. "When we decided to position Star Plus as an exclusively desi channel, we knew Hindi films would be our best bet," says Arrow Sinha Roy, Star TV's senior vice-president, corporate affairs and publicity. So, Star Plus airs a blockbuster a week. Till October, it aired only one a month.
November saw the cash-rich satellite channel air Pardes, Ghulam, Trimurti and Yes Boss. On each film, Star Plus generated well over Rs 2 crore in ad revenue. The December line-up: Gupt, Raja Hindustani, Coolie No.1 and one of the year's biggest hits Satya. Clearly, movies are driving Star Plus' 'desi manoranjan' formula. "Not just for us, it's a good thing for the film industry, too," says Sinha Roy. "TV represents an assured source of revenue for producers." But what about the distributors? "Their ire is perfectly justified," says CVO's CEO Ram Hingorani. "The producers are violating the commitment not to sell their films to DD or a satellite channel for three to five years from the release date," he adds. For a cable channel, Hingorani points out, the telecast embargo is for three to six months.
Says Sam Mal, vice-president, marketing (northern region), IN Network: "On CVO, TRPs and advertising register a 300 per cent rise during the telecast of a blockbuster." Understandably, the two-year-old cable channel, which has in the recent past aired superhits like Judwaa, Virasat, Karan Arjun and Ghulam, has decided to air at least one blockbuster a month. But can the movies sustain so many channels? "Being a cable channel, we are at an advantage," says Mal. "We can keep our ad rates within manageable limits. The satellite channels pay much more for the films and the audiences they garner might not always justify their steep spot buy rates."
But TV viewers are not complaining. Neither, of course, are the producers. Ghulam, produced by Mukesh Bhatt, was sold to film distributors for Rs 75 lakh per territory. But Star Plus paid Bhatt Rs 1.25 crore for a one-off telecast agreement. CVO had earlier acquired 10-year cable TV rights to the film for one-third that amount. "It's a windfall for the producer," says G.S. Mayawala, general secretary of the Film Distributors' Council. "But spare a thought for the poor distributors of Ghulam. They can no longer earn anything from the theatrical circuit."
No wonder the distributors are fuming. "We'll be appealing to the Delhi high court for a stay order," says Mayawala. His case: the sale of satellite and cable rights within months of a film's commercial release is a flagrant violation of the June 10, 1994 agreement between the Film Makers' Combine and FDC barring the telecast of a film for five years. Ghulam, he points out, was telecast by CVO and Star Plus within six months of its release. Satya is still running in many theatres, but Star Plus is all set to air it on the last Saturday of 1998.
Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt has stoutly defended the producer's prerogative to do what he wants with his product: "Why should there be protection for the distributor, especially when earnings from theatres are always greater than those from satellite and cable rights put together?" But the president of the Film Federation of India, Santosh Singh Jain, himself a big-time distributor, feels that a film takes up to two years to recover its cost and, therefore, distributors have reason to be aggrieved.
So the debate continues. Says Mayawala: "It is not merely the film that is being telecast that is affected. All new releases have to pay the price for the telecast of a big film as audiences are enticed to stay home." He blames the channels for the fate of
China-Gate and Doli Sajake Rakhna. "If the trend continues, distributors will have to do a rethink on the huge amounts they are forced to cough up," says Mayawala. Keep watching: the action is sure to hot up. On the small screen and off it.