An ambitious television show in India called Satyamev Jayate is using social media to jumpstart conversations about emotional topics and to promote social change. It receives more than one million messages each week and has had 1.25 billion impressions online since the show started on May 6.
The show, whose title means ”the truth must prevail” in Hindi, was created, produced, and hosted by Bollywood star Aamir Khan. Its 13 episodes covered heavy topics like female feticide, the dowry system, alcohol abuse and child abuse in hope of spurring conversations among the Indian people.
To track those conversations, the show uses online interactive dashboards built by Persistent Systems, an Indian software firm with an office in Santa Clara, California, that update hourly to measure the audience’s interaction and engagement. The show’s producers can better understand who is watching the show and know where and how they are responding to the content.
“What social media did went far beyond anything I anticipated. It took the show and made it the people’s show,” Star India Network Chief Marketing Officer Gayatri Yadav said. “So much so that I don’t think that Satyamev Jayate is anything we own, either Star Network or Aamir Khan Productions. It’s owned by the people, and they made it the people’s brand. That’s what the internet does, the megaphone shifts.”
The show was critically acclaimed but its ratings were mediocre – the show aired at 11 a.m. on Sunday mornings and received an average of about 3.5 ratings point for Star Network, and 11 rating for the simultaneous broadcast on Doordarshan public TV, according to the Indian publication Business Today. But the conversation online was something else entirely. The result was a weekly outpouring online that Yadav said she’s never seen for a TV show before, in India or elsewhere.
The show’s first episode about female feticide or the practice of killing a fetus in the womb after discovering the child will be female, garnered 158 million impressions online, 1.39 million written responses, and raised $481,470 for a charity for girls in the week before the show’s second episode.
During the show, Khan prompted the audience to vote whether a fast track court should be established for doctors charged with aiding parents in female feticide; some cases had languished in the Indian court system for as long as seven years. When 99.6 percent of 291, 313 people voted yes, Khan took the response to the prime minister of the province Rajasthan, and the court was established within a week of the show airing.
“Satyamev Jayate has really taken it to the next level about how do we really bring about change and bring about new thinking in society,” Yadav said. “Television and the reach of television in India is really incredible: Star Network reaches out to some 400 million people a week.”
Susan Etlinger, a social media analyst at the Altimeter Group, said the social campaign for the show was “amazing.” ”The numbers are unbelievably impressive,” Etlinger said. “The social piece of this is as important as the show itself. It’s not just being used to promote the show; its social media and the show coexist. That to me is what’s unique about it and what’s so stunning to see.”
She said there were lessons businesses and brands in the social media success of the show, especially to correlating conversations in social media, and more structured data like the yes or no votes.
“I think that brands can learn about what the show has done, to touch them personally, give them information that’s important to them, and give them the tools to talk about and better understand what’s important them,” she said. “If you wanted to take a crude marketing point of view it’s personalization or targeting, but in this case those terms are inappropriate. They’ve set up a framework for what you could really learn for what people want and what people think about these issues.”
The producers have collected and tagged the 14.9 million messages the show has received, drilling down several layers to go beyond simple positive vs. negative sentiment analysis to better understand what its viewers are trying to tell them.
Jonathan Dotan, the show’s digital media consultant and a producer for Aamir Khan Productions, pointed to the show about medical malpractice for an example of how sentiment analysis was inadequate. “If you ran a typical sentiment algorithm, it would just say negative because they would be using key terms that would be quite negative, and in some cases tragic,” Dotan said. “So that wasn’t a good measure for us, because people were very positive about the show and were sharing very personal stories in hundreds of words. So as excited as they were about the show, the sentiment that would have been tagged by a traditional algorithm would be negative.”
“We went to the next level to make sure we could tag it so people could understand exactly what the content was,” he said. “We’d categorize what types of things people were talking about, from incorrect surgery, loss of live, incorrect prescription, or over prescription. We listened very closely to these messages; we felt we owed it to the viewers. We felt it was our commitment; if we were going to provoke such an emotional conversation, we wanted to make sure that we listened just as closely.”
Rohit Bhosale, the head of analytics at Persistent Systems for the show, said they used a combination of machine learning and human input to categorize and tag the responses. One of the biggest challenges, he said, was the number of different languages used in responses. There are 29 languages spoken in India. Most responses came in Hinglish, a mix of Hindi and English. The other challenges were the variety: text, audio and video format. The producers made SMS mobile texting a priority – there are 800 million cell phones in India – and viewers often sent in texts hundreds of words long.
“Analyzing those things and trying to find the emotions that are in the message were a big challenge,” Bhosale said. “The velocity of the messages was another challenge. On average we were getting 1 million messages per week. We had to analyze all those things in that week only, because next week you would have the next episode.”
Yadav and Dotan said the show is going to invite research organizations to take a deeper look at what all the data they’ve collected represents. The show’s final episode aired in August; the first season took two years to create, so Yadav said it’s unclear when season two will start.
“We are working with several institutions, and are finding a way to hand over the data to them for more intensive analysis,” Dotan said. “It’s important to be able to ensure that this can get into the hands of people who can study it and understand what the implications are at a society level, or make some policy recommendations that can be actionable at an NGO level. So really the story has just begun.”
Email Staff Writer Ian B. Murphy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter .