Sponsorship Cannibalism

Back in 2004 Shamanth, Bofi, Anshumani and I started the IIT Madras Open Quiz. In some ways it was a response to critics of IITM quizzing, who blamed our quizzes for being too long, too esoteric, too disorganized and the likes. It was also an effort to take IITM quizzing to a wider audience, for till then most quizzes that IITM hosted were limited to college participants only. An open quiz hosted by the institute, and organized professionally would go a long way in boosting the institute’s reputation in quizzing, we reasoned.

Shamanth had a way with the institute authorities and it wasn’t very difficult to convince them regarding the concept. We hit a roadblock, however, when we realized that organizing a “professionally organized” quiz was a big deal, and would cost a lot of money, which means we had to raise sponsorship. And this is where our troubles started.

The first bunch of people we approached to help with sponsorship were the Saarang (IITM Fest) sponsorship coordinators, who had so successfully raised tens of lakhs for the just-concluded Saarang. Raising the one lakh or so that we needed would be child’s play for them, we reasoned. However, it was not to be. While the coordinators themselves were quite polite and promised to help, we noticed that there was no effort in that direction. Later it transpired that the cultural secretaries and the core group (let’s call them the Cultural Committee for the purpose of this post) ┬áhad forbidden them from helping us out. Raising sponsorship for an additional event would cannibalize Saarang sponsorship, we were told.

When we needed volunteers to run the show, again we found that the Saarang “GA Coordinators” (GA = General Arrangements; these guys were brilliant at procuring and arranging for just about anything) had been forbidden from working with us. The Cultural Committee wanted to send out a strong signal that they did not encourage the institute holding any external “cultural” events that were outside of its domain. It was after much hostel-level bullying that we got one “GA guy” to do the arrangements for the quiz. As for the sponsorship, we tapped some institute budget, and the dean helped us out by tapping his contacts at TCS (for the next few years it was called the TCS IITM Open Quiz).

One reason the quiz flourished was that in the following couple of years, the organizers of the quiz had close links with the cultural committee – one of the quizmasters of the second and third editions of the quiz himself being a member of the said committee. This helped the quiz to get a “lucrative” date (October 2nd – national holidays are big days for quizzing in Chennai), and despite being organized by students, it became a much sought after event in South Indian quizzing circles. Trouble started again, however, after the link between the quizmasters and the cultural committee were broken.

The Cultural Committee once again started viewing this quiz as a threat to Saarang, and did their best to scuttle it. The quiz was moved around the calendar – thus losing its much-coveted October 2nd spot, and soon discontinued altogether. Despite significant protests from the external quizzing community and alumni, there was no sign of the quiz re-starting. Finally when the cultural committee accepted, it was under the condition that the quiz be a part of Saarang itself. After significant struggle, finally a bunch of enterprising volunteers organized the quiz this year after a long hiatus. It is not known how much support they received from the cultural people.

The point I’m trying to make is that when you have one lucrative product (in this case Saarang), it is in your interest to kill all products which could potentially be a competitor to this product, which explains the behaviour of the IITM Cultural Committee towards the Open Quiz. And it is the same point that explains why Test cricket in India is languishing, with bad scheduling (Tests against the West Indies started on Mondays), bad grounds, expensive tickets and the likes. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) now has one marquee “product”, the Indian Premier League (IPL). The IPL is the biggest cash cow for the BCCI, and the board puts most of its efforts in generating sponsorship for that event. And as a side effect, it does its best to ensure that most of the premium sponsorship comes to the IPL, and thus the stepmotherly treatment of other “properties” including domestic cricket.

Last evening, I was wondering what it would take for the BCCI to make a big deal of the Ranji trophy, with national team members present, good television coverage and the kind of glamour we associate with the IPL. And then I realized this was wishful thinking, for the BCCI would never want to dilute the IPL brand. Have you heard of a tournament called the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy? It is the domestic inter-state T20 competition. A potential moneyspinner, you would think, if all national team members are available. But do you know that last year the final stages of this competition coincided with the World Cup? I’m not joking here.

I’m sure you can think of several other similar examples (Bennett Coleman and Company’s purchase and subsequent discontinuation of “Vijay Times” also comes to mind). And the one thing it implies is that it’s bad news for niches. For they will begin to be seen as competition for the “popular” brand which is probably owned by the same owners, and they will be discouraged.


Orators and Writers

Yesterday I was reading an op-ed in Mint when it struck me was that this particular columnist never argues – in the sense that he never constructs an argument using inductive or deductive logic. His method or argument is to say the same thing over and over again – in different ways, using different metaphors. He hopes to make his point by way of reinforcement, and considering his popularity and his ubiquity across the media, I’m sure it works for a lot of people (though not for me).

Then I started thinking about people who are known to be “great orators”, mostly from the Indian political space. I started thinking about Vajpayee, about Chandrashekhar and several other similar people. I discovered the same thing about them. That they seldom construct an argument using deductive or inductive logic. Their way of getting the point across is the same as the Mint columnist’s – to say the same thing forcefully and in several different ways.

And thinking about it, it seems quite logical. When you are addressing a large audience, you will need to take everyone along. You will need to ensure that everyone is clued in on what you are speaking on. And when you speak, there is no way for the listener to take a step or two back if he/she misses something you said. Unlike text, the speech has to be interpreted in one parse. So if you are to be a great orator, you need to make sure that you take the audience along; that you construct your speech in such a way that even if someone gets distracted for a few words they can join back and appreciate the rest of the speech. Hence you are better off indulging in rhetoric rather than argument.

A writer, on the other hand, has no such compulsions. It is easy for his reader to go back and forth and parse the essay in whatever order he deems fit. As long as he keeps the language simple, the reader is likely to go along with him. On the other hand, if the writer indulges in rhetoric, the reader is likely to get bored and that could be counterproductive. Hence, writers are more into argument than into rhetoric.

Which brings me back to the Mint columnist I was reading yesterday who, as far as I know, has been a prolific writer but not as much as an orator (or maybe he is but I wouldn’t know since he lives abroad). And I’m puzzled that he has settled on a rhetorical style rather than an argumentative style. I’ve happened to meet him and even then he was mostly using rhetoric rather than reasoning in his arguments.

So yeah, the essence is that there are two ways in which you can construct arguments – by logical reasoning which is mostly preferred by writers and by rhetoric which is preferred by orators. I’m not sure how successful you can be if you interchange styles.

The other side of the long tail

There are several people who talk about how the advent and the popularity of the internet has resulted in markets in many a long tail. Without loss of generality, let us just take the market for writing here. Several niches which were earlier not served since there wasn’t enough of a dedicated audience in a particular geographical area for a certain set of articles and so no one bothered to write and disseminate them.

For example, it is unlikely that there was enough of a “market” for a series of posts on the Studs and Fighters Theory in the days before the internet – a market big enough for a newspaper or a magazine or a journal to bother publishing. Now, the internet not only allows me to publish it without effort or cost, but also lets me know that there is enough of a market for this kind of a series for me to bother publishing it rather than just explain it to a few friends in a smoky bar or cafe.

Now, the funda is that sometimes the long tail can exist in geographically coherent markets and not online! For example, all of yesterday, while at work i was frantically searching for sources to follow the BBMP election results. Everyone led me to this TV9 video streaming but it didn’t open on my office network and I couldn’t find any other live sources that were constantly updating the results. I had had similar problems following the results of the Karnataka Assembly elections two years back.

It was then I realized that the “traditional market” can itself be the long tail! For example, the amount of information I found about the elections in this morning’s papers was really impressive – in fact, the much ridiculed ToI had pretty good coverage of the polls, as did the Deccan Herald or the New Indian Express. Earlier in the morning, yesterday, too there were the Kannada channels which focused exclusively on the election results.

What I’m saying here may be fairly obvious, but just wanted to point out that long tail need not refer exclusively to the new media, or new channels. When you look at it in certain ways, several of the traditional media are also catering esssentially to a long tail, though when there was only the traditional media, no one really used the term.

Talking of BBMP elections, take a look at this graphic that was presented in the Deccan Herald today. Don’t you see a pattern in this?

Bangalore Map

NED Open

Happened today in three places. Chennai went in the morning, Bombay early in the afternoon and here in Bangalore in the evening. As part of the introduction to the finls we had written “if you are satisfied with the questions kindly let us know. If not, write to us in civil language and we will look into it”. I would encourage you to use the comments thread on this post to do the same.

Some personal comments at the end of it:

  • It’s insanely tiring for a single quizmaster to do a quiz this long (72 questions + LVC in finals). I can hardly talk right now and was shouting myself hoarse towards the end of the quiz (and as if it wasn’t bad enough, there was a tiebreaker to be conducted)
  • 72 questions plus a LVC is way to long for finals. True to the nomenclature of the quiz, I noticed several teams and part of the audience put NED towards the end. That it was late in the evening did matter i think. But again thinking about it, isn’t it fair that people put NED at the NED quiz?
  • One art I need to become better at is in terms of dividing points between teams in cases of partial answers. But then the problem there is however you do it, some team is bound to crib
  • Given it was such a long quiz, I was quite low on energy towards the end so probably did a worse job of point distribution, funda explanation etc. than I could have done
  • One needs to recognize that the concept of the LVC has been designed with an intention to irritate, and so some teams are bound to get pissed with it. As long as the audience enjoys you are good
  • One mistake I did (and I did this several times) was to continue wiht a question even after one team had given a “good enough” answer, and then finally give points tothe team that had originally given the “good enough” answer. This both wasted time as well as pissed people off
  • At the end of the quiz i was feeling so damn tired that all I wanted to do wsa to go to Dewar’s wine shop on St Marks Road and buy myself a bottle of Amrut Fusion and finish it off. But then, NED happened.

Telling Known Stories

I’ve always been skeptical when people have told me that they are telling known stories in their play. Whenever someone tells me something like that, I start wondering what the big deal about it is. About why anyone would want to watch a play that tells a story that they already know. A story where everyone expects the next move that the actors make, the next thing the actors say. I wonder what thrill the actors get when they know that they are contributing little to the audience in terms of story value.

But then, after watching a mindblowing rendition of the Ramayana by kids of Navkis Educational Centre (I was there at the invitation of a friend whose cousin studies in the school and played a major role in the production) last weekend, I must confess that I had been wrong. I must admit that there does exist tremendous value in telling known stories. In fact, from a pure artistic perspective, it is preferable to tell a known story.

There are two parts to every production – the story and the way the story is told. And unless the story is something absolutely mindblowing, or has enough twists and turns and thrills to keep the viewers always on the edge of their seats, it is the latter part that makes or breaks a production. Yeah, of course you need a reasonable plot, a good storyline, but if you look at all the great movies, books or stage production, the best part has been the way that the stories have been told.

So when you are telling a known story, it gives you more scope to experiment in terms of the way that the story is told. You get more freedom to do your own thing, knowing fully well that the viewers know what is happening. You can twist and turn the dialogues, or even dispense with them (as the Navkis kids did). You can leave things unsaid, knowing that the audience will fill in the gaps. In short, you can just freak out with the production, in a way you never can if the audience doesn’t know the story.

Of course it is a double edged sword. Because you are not adding any value in terms of the story itself, the way you present the story can make or break the production. So unless you are confident that you are telling the story in a unique way, you risk tomatoes.

Another thing I was thinking about during the performance on Saturday was about the commercial viability of productions such as this. It was a truly amazing performance by the kids, and for a school play you don’t need commercial success. The thrill of being involved (and each one of the 500+ students of the school was involved in the production) is enough incentive for the players to do a good job. The question is about scalability, replicability and commercialization. I don’t have any answers yet. If you can think of something, let me know.