Twenty20 Vision

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Embedded advertising and seven minute breaks are making money for everyone involved with IPL, and killing the game. And, hey, Mandira Bedi doesn’t help either

Sameer Kochhar, who looks like a bouncer-turned-Bappi Lahiri family member (shiny black suits, black satin ties, and gaudy purple and gold shirts make for with-it dressing for our man), anchors the hour-long pre- and post-match IPL shows in the company of sundry former Indian team cricketers. Even a passing knowledge of the game is not a prerequisite to get that job, it seems. After nearly a month of hosting IPL shows, he’s finally learned that 150 is a ‘par score’ in South Africa and that the ‘French Cut’ doesn’t refer to the latest Jawed Habib hairdo.

IPL’s chairman Lalit Modi never tires of bleating on about how his idea of a mega-money league is a proud product of New India. He expects IPL to soon rival the English Premier League and America’s NBA, both in commerce and popular appeal. It is, therefore, a bit of a shame that Modi’s first world sports league gets third world television treatment on SET Max, the competition’s official media partner.

Watching live IPL2 matches on TV (if you manage to survive Kochhar) is a bit like travelling sleeper class from Chennai to Delhi on Grand Trunk Express, having paid for a business class air ticket. For every hawker selling Aziz Gold stuffed inside Gold Flake packets at three times the MRP at Vijayawada station, there’s a Ravi Shastri hollering himself hoarse, building up the toss in Durban as if it were as momentous as MK Gandhi being thrown out on the Pietermaritzburg platform. If you woke up the former Surrey and England seamer Robin Jackman at 2 am he’d shout ‘DLF Maximum’ with the same conviction as the mango seller in Rajamundhry would pass off stolid Banganapallis as flavourful Mulgoas.

In Nagpur, the blue polythene-packed green oranges (a dozen for Rs 10) are perhaps as sweet as the success city boy Vikram Pandit is enjoying lately up at New York. But that surely doesn’t stop the former legendary opening bat Sunil Gavaskar from proclaiming the simplest of slip catches as the ‘Citi Moment of Success’. When Ballarshah beckons, the acidic smell of the bhelpuri on offer doesn’t deter its purveyors from claiming that it is Mumbai’s best, much in the manner of Kepler Wessels, sitting a few miles from the famed Kimberley mines, protesting that the DLF IPL trophy studded with “diamonds and rubies” is the finest piece of craftsmanship in the world. To the naked eye, the trophy seems an advertisement for Brasso.

When the GT Express finally pulls to a halt at New Delhi 36 hours later, there are Karol Bagh mess owners who promise a ‘pleasant’ stay and ‘authentic’ home-cooked south Indian tiffin and meals. Similarly, on SET Max, Lalit Modi is interviewed every day by on-the-ground ‘roving reporter’ Meiyang Chang (qualification: Indian Idol contestant), who informs viewers, standing next to half-empty stands, that most matches have been sold out.

Product placement and embedded marketing hasn’t been practised with such ruthlessness ever before. Modi, in a stroke of genius, carved out two seven-and-a-half minute mid-innings ‘strategic time-outs’ in exchange for Sony almost doubling the TV rights deal to Rs 8,200 crore in a renegotiated deal this year.

“The players don’t like it, the viewers don’t like it and soon enough the advertisers, too, won’t. After all, the ratings dip 10-15 per cent then. Also during this break, an advertiser’s brand has to compete with others,” says Tarun Nigam, executive director, Starcom (North India and Pakistan), a media buying agency. Another media planner says that IPL has simply “raped” the word strategy with these breaks. “This is the kind of naked commercialism that could kill the golden goose. A seven minute break in a 20-over innings just takes away the momentum for both players and spectators,” she says.

“It’s a fact that audiences do not like ad breaks. All of us would like to see a programme, whether it is a soap or cricket telecast, without any breaks. But it is a reality. We have received no negative feedback from viewers this time. The strategy break is an innovation introduced by the BCCI. We have no say in it,” contends Sneha Rajani, executive vice-president and business head of SET Max.

When sports channels bag a marquee deal, they put tremendous amounts of R&D into making the coverage spectacular and innovative. ESPN Star’s excellent coverage of the English Premier league is a perfect example. ESPN Star is helped in a big way by the superb visual quality and cutting-edge match commentary supplied by its UK-based sister network Sky Sports. But ESPN’s in-house pre- and post-match analysis, expertly anchored by John Dykes, holds a lesson or two on world class sports coverage and the ideal marriage of content and commerce for both Sony and IPL.

And, by the way, Mandira Bedi, Sony’s mascot of mass appeal since 2003, is growing long in the tooth. Sorry Mandira, your attempts to look like Halle Berry and the tube-tops-only policy are as disastrous as the time-outs.