Does every Indian youngster dream of making it in the movies? It certainly looked that way when Zee Telefilms announced it was holding a contest to find India's next movie star. (India's best Cinestar ki khoj</i>).
When the Zee roadshow arrived in Delhi the organisers were stupefied to find 19,000 young hopefuls queuing up in the searing mid-May heat for their shot at stardom. After considering their options, Zee's managers shifted the audition to a larger venue the next day.
For Zee it has been a marathon of audition sessions. In the space of 25 days, the talent hunt team has been at it without a break watching the antics of young aspirants in 20 cities in the Hindi-speaking belt.
Finally, after an almost superhuman effort they've shortlisted about 80 from the lakhs of applications. What's the investment for this nightmarish logistical exercise?
Zee is forking out about Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) but that includes the two movies, which will star the two lucky winners -- along with Preity Zinta and Sunny Deol. The films, say industry sources, will be directed by well-known directors Ram Gopal Varma and Sudhir Mishra.
Zee isn't the only television channel that has moved out of the studio and gone on a cross-country talent hunt. Take a look at Channel V's Get Gorgeous model hunt, in partnership with the Elite Modelling Academy.
In the coming months the Channel V talent scouts will hold parties across the country in a bid to zero in on four knock-your-socks-off beauties in six cities.
Finally, the four lucky ones will get to strut their stuff along the ramp and they'll also be profiled across eight episodes on Channel V.
Not to be outdone, MTV is also casting around the countryside for new talent and it has teamed up with Balaji Telefilms for the arduous search.
The winners of this contest will star in the new thrice-a-week serial -- Kitni Mast Hai Zindagi to be aired on MTV soon. Between them the talent scouts will travel to 100 cities. MTV has partnered Rai University for the talent hunt sessions.
In an age of interactive amusement, they are the surefire way to ensure audiences stay glued to the small screen. "It has become a must-do for channels to succeed," says an industry source.
Look at the channels that are scouring the cities for talent. Get Gorgeous is looking for catwalk stars. And, industry sources say Channel V is working on its third round of Pop Stars.
But this time the hunt will be for a solo crooner. Flick the remote control and Sahara Manoranjan is emulating Zee by promising double-ticket stardom for a Mr & Mrs Bollywood. Even Star TV is contemplating an India Superstar hunt.
Why is everybody hunting for talent? Media experts say the general entertainment channels had a tough time last year.
According to Television Audience Measurement data, viewership on these channels plunged from 51 per cent to 36 per cent. "They were severely affected by World Cup cricket and the elections that followed. So channels have been considering new programming," says the expert.
But that's not all. Globally programme-makers have discovered the power of talent hunts. Also, in India the soaps that have kept the channels in business are peaking.
Says Ashish Dabral, executive vice president -- marketing, Zee Telefilms, "We found people love rags-to-riches stories. They love to know what went into the making of a star." Adds Amar Deb, head, Channel (V) India, "We were like any other channel till we had Pop Stars which brought us upfront."
Definitely, some talent hunts have created instant recall. Take MTV, which launched its VJ Hunt in 1999 and then followed it up with another in 2002.
Says Vikram Raizada, vice president, marketing, mobile, online at MTV India, "At the first VJ Hunt we had to educate people about the profession. And that created a lot of interaction and recall for us."
Also, according to media planners, ad rates for talent hunts are believed to be five to 10 times higher than for general entertainment programmes.
Certainly, the interactive quality of these programmes does help to pull in larger audiences. Audiences are invited to join the fun via SMS -- and that means extra money from tie-ups with the telecom companies.
Also, many of the hopefuls will tune in to see what finally happens. Says an industry source, "If you just take the number of participants that flock to these hunts, and their families and friends, that's your captive audience right there without any effort."
That's exactly how Channel V's Pop Star 1 pushed its viewership share from 0.3 per cent before it went on air two years ago, to the current 0.6 per cent.
A successful talent hunt can also enhance the channel's image. Says Divya Radhakrishnan, vice president, The Mediaedge, the media arm of Rediffusion DY&R, "There is more viewer involvement in these shows."
Inevitably, different channels have different aims when they launch talent hunts. Zee's Dabral argues that the channel only wants to leverage the common man's aspirations. "We found there is a great audience connect between the aspirations of a common man and the makings of a star," he says.
At a slightly different level, MTV is hoping to broadbase the channel's programming beyond the realms of music. For the past few years, MTV has been remixing its programme portfolio to bring in new viewers.
"We have so many other facets to the channel. There's humour, reality TV style, technology, and the soap just adds another feature," says Raizada.
With music as its mainstay MTV has been largely urban-centric. With the broadbasing, MTV hopes to touch base with the hinterland's young viewers.
Also, interactive programming enables TV channels to get instant viewer feedback and keep their fingers on the pulse of middle-class India.
But with everyone on a talent trek, can channels sustain audience attention for long? "There is always a danger of overkill. After all there was only one Kaun Banega Crorepati," agrees Deb.
Also, the channel must package its show skilfully. A media executive points to the musical voice hunt programme -- Sa re ga ma pa, "It is a good ground show which makes for great viewing because of its first rate packaging."
Consider MTV's Kitni mast hai zindagi. It sweet-talked the usually reticent Balaji Telefilms' creative star Ekta Kapoor to endorse it. She has already been hailed as a creative whiz with a penchant for transforming neighbourhood boys and girls into stars.
So Kapoor appears on posters telling youngsters about her Midas touch. These are pasted around colleges and youth hangouts. Also, huge cutouts of Kapoor are plastered on the walls of coffee shops like Barista. What's more, MTV will not announce the winners. They will appear directly in the first episode of the soap, written by Kapoor to be aired in September.
For some channels, success is imperative as was the case with Channel [V] and players like Zee, which were losing out to competition.
In recent times Zee has slid to third place after Star and Sony. It is now hoping that its new show along with a clutch of other new programmes will haul it back to glory. Says TME's Radhakrishnan, "It goes without saying that the success of Cinestars ki Khoj is vital for Zee. It has to do a KBC for them."Other channels too, are expecting to hit the bull's eye with their talent hunts. As Radhakrishnan puts it: "In fact, all channels are searching for their KBCs."