Small Screen. Big Strides. Bigger Challenges:
The current phase in the evolution of television in India is in many ways an improvement over the one that it followed- the time when Doordarshan was the only channel available to Indian viewers. The owners of TV media have realized that in a country of over a billion, the audience cannot possibly be a homogenous lot. Today, with so many channels already on air and so many more ready to be launched in the near future, the viewer seems spoilt for choices. As rival networks vie with each other to occupy the top spot in TRP ratings, competition between them has intensified and resulted in an inundation of programs. In a way, the attempt of the media has been to cater to the diverse needs and interests of their collective audience. From 24- hour news channels to 24- hour cartoon channels to 24- hour science and technology channels- television in India shows it all. Also, most major private networks have diversified and are running many channels at the same time, each airing programs of a genre different from the other. In India alone, the STAR TV network, for example, runs as many as seventeen channels that include Star Plus, several regional language channels, and Star Cricket.
And yet, there are more than a few voices that have expressed dissatisfaction with the way television in India in shaping up. They say that while the number of programs has multiplied many times over ever since the inception of the cable age in India, the quality of the same has remained stagnant.
The most vociferous protests against the narrowness of focus of TV programs have come against two widely popular genres of programs- News and general entertainment. In a recent interview, Sevanti Ninan, media columnist and editor, the Hoot, said, ”Liberalization has led to the media targeting readers as consumers rather than citizens. There is a burgeoning of frothy supplements, loads of newsprint devoted to non-issues… Media is increasingly targeting the upwardly mobile consumers in their cities. It’s a serious issue because agriculture, education, employment and health need more coverage than they presently get. We have lots of space devoted to food as a lifestyle thing. None devoted to hunger which stalks substantial sections of the population.” What applies to print journalism holds true for television too. IIMC professor Pradeep Mathur says,” Television media has actually started catering to the needs and interests of only fifty per cent of the country’s population. Their focus is almost entirely on the middle and upper class, urban and educated people of India, which has rendered invisible the issues and concerns of the vast majority of the poor and the voiceless Indians”. So like the current boom in economy, the expansion of the media’s reach is limited to certain segments of the society. High profile arrests and scandals, Bollywood, cricket and the stock market hog most of the space on television news. In a lecture to the Radio and TV students of IIMS, media personality Suhasini Haider articulated a disheartening fact- the Aishwarya Rai- Abhishek Bachchan wedding got around 1200 hours of media coverage, while farmers’ suicides in Vidarbha, even at their peak, got less than 200. Lifestyle and movie based shows run uninterrupted for the whole year, while the Uphaar Cinema fire, the Kanishka Bombing, and the Bhopal Gas tragedy get media attention only on their respective anniversaries.
Ironically, the coverage of even the few favorite subjects of the media lack critical and in- depth analysis, and remains superficial, predictable and one- sided. Most TV channels fail to focus on more than just a few aspects of a person or issue. Rakhi Sawant is almost always portrayed as a loud- mouthed, shallow opportunist. Shah Rukh Khan is always the adorable, down- to- earth superstar. All of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s directorial vetures are pronounced flawless and average around eight and a half stars out of five in most film review shows. Tendulkar loyalists all but convince viewers of his ability to dominate international cricket till 2038. Very few channels have the ability (courage?) to explore previously ignored angles that might lead to uncomfortable questions to revered individuals or institutions. Most prefer paying lip service to ‘heroes’ while simultaneously entrapping and maligning non- entities like Shatki Kapoor.
Graham Greene once said, “Media is a word that has come to mean bad journalism”. As far as news channels are concerned, the mad rush for high TRPs, which in turn result in better revenues, have resulted in many of them focusing less on the authenticity and relevance of news stories, and more on how to captivate the attention of the viewers, even if it means sensationalizing an issue or misrepresenting/ doctoring facts. Investigative journalism that once exposed, say, miscreant politicians or botched government policies, has now given way to cheap, sensationalist sting operations whose success depends upon how well they can stimulate base, voyeuristic tendencies of viewers. The recent Uma Khurana fiasco is a case in point. Today, all know the truth that Ms. Khurana was the victim of a ghastly conspiracy. Yet, what nags our conscience is that the mental and physical torture of an innocent woman could have been prevented had Live India bothered to first check the validity of the accusing reporter’s allegations before airing the false news. In fact, the growing dependence of TV news media on sting operations highlights the disturbing fact that between the challenging path of smart investigation, focused research and objective analysis, and short cuts that involve deceit and entrapment to grab damning audio/ visuals, more and more media people are opting for the latter.
Television news on the whole has become so cluttered with superfluous non- information that the search of a viewer for relevant news on TV often becomes an exasperating exercise. A viewer who switches on his/her TV to get information on, say, the current stand- off between the BJP and the JD (S) in Karnataka might first have to suffer a slew of senseless ‘news’ stories such as those on Sai Baba’s miraculous, self- elongating garland, the ‘reincarnation’ of Kalpana Chawla as a little girl from Khurja, or the existence of ‘ghosts’ in a locked room of a police station in Jaunpur before being obliged with a coverage on the Karnataka government issue.
Amidst this pandemonium of important and frivolous news, true and fabricated sting- operations, and biased and judgmental coverage, the focus on truth or the larger picture often gets lost. The coverage of, say, police’s arrests of sex workers invariably project sex workers as criminals to be shunned, instead of looking into the grim reality of the situation that forced these women to the margins of the society.
American advertising executive William Bernbach once said, “All of us who professionally use the media are the shapers of society. We can vulgarize that society. We can brutalize it. Or we can help lift it onto a higher level.” As people involved in the business of TV programming in India, we need to realize this. It is important for us to get rid of our myopic visions and broaden our reach in the true sense. If we resolve to reach out to the masses of the nation and develop a critical, multi- perspective take on issues, we can rest assured of the present success of television to sustain in the long run.