The room is dark, a 23 inch television screen flickers in a corner lighting up the small space in front of it. A pyramidal frustum of pale blueish light emerges from the cathode ray tube elevating the features of a circular individual. He for stereotype compliance reasons is obviously fat and devoid of unwarranted motion. He is staring onto the screen, starving for entertainment and information. You can see the disgust in the pig like eyes as they squirm at every soap passing the screen. He turns to the news and has to search frantically for the remote control and fiddle with it till his chubby fingers find the mute button. He stares at the well-groomed young newsreader who seems to be yelling, now silently. The scene seems comic and our obese friend smiles. His ears seem to shrivel as he passes MTV and he pushes the big red button as a similarly shaped God-man appears deciding the fate of a paragon of gullibility. He sighs and turns to an old battered laptop which lies next to him. He starts the machine and on his screen up comes YouTube. His face and all the three chins on it seem to be screaming ” What were you thinking, putting the idiot box on ?”
Television and visual media is part of our culture, TV watching a ritual, the essential accompaniment to dal chawal and the rants of several vocal fathers across the nation. It is the one affordable form of entertainment or was at least till the advent of broadband to Indian homes. Still it does remain the simplest form in a country producing millions of IT engineers yet not so many computer literates. This is not an essay on ” TV bane or Boon” or ” TV vs Internet ” , no this is structured frustration as to the lack of watchable content in a world of satellite television, abundant in choice.
What can you see?
- Soaps : The favorite punching bags of anyone who has graduated to shows from FoxTV and CBS. When your parents watch these you wince and if your friends do you distance yourselves immediately. These are those well accepted awful shows with plot lines bubbling with affairs, familial problems, rebirths, abortions, tears, screams, truckloads of jewelry and makeup, flashbacks, nightmares, deaths, kidnappings and unsystematic mind mutilation. Often stated as the inspiration of burning daughter in-laws for sport, these shows are now pretty popular online as housewives and middle-aged men can’t wait till tomorrow to find out if the hero feeds his illegitimate son with the money his lover’s brother lent him to pay for his step mother’s brain replacement surgery.
- Reality TV : This is a shade darker than the first category. In the first at least you know that the things these people indulge in are intended to be fiction. Now all singing, dancing, cooking contests may be scripted but the fact that the resulting debacle is a product of public demand, an even more frightening thought. A house full of society’s anomalies and show biz rejects abusing each other and trying to get away with as much as they can in front of a superficially conservative but secretly gossip coveting audience. If the likes of Newton could see us now he’d wish it were a meteor and not an apple that did the act of falling.
- Talk Shows : We have always been late to the party when it comes to cultural trends. Talk shows to provide employment to the minority of spent stand ups and sexually suppressed celebs brings this genre. There is almost never any amount of useful information disseminated over the leather or swede sofas. Which Khan talked to which damsel half his age being the general direction. While I can see this being riveting to a few people whose topic on Mastermind would be celebrity marriages, what about the rest of us? How about calling someone who can actually say something beyond the powder room, oh but you might alienate your audience then.
- News : When films like Peepli Live satirized this category they weren’t far off from the truth. The screen shot of any news channel in any language looks like an ad for protein supplements in the yellow pages of a cheap tabloid. There are screaming text boxes in CAPS, red boxes with every little news being BREAKING, a ticker of uninteresting feed at the bottom. Then there are the horrendous debates where nothing is said of any consequence by any one of any real power while hosts compete for decibel points. You might say that at least these issues are being discussed, I say they are being thrown around till you get bored of them instead of educating the populous.
- Religious : A small number of channels fit in this category but if you see the number of pensioners per household multiplied by the hours they have free to consume this content the number is by no means small. While televangelists have been as common as obese kids in America, their Indian counterparts are just now beginning to grasp the potential of TV preaching. Dozens of opulent Babas and Devis are flocking channels exploiting the gullibility of thousands of viewers nationwide. Yantras and Mantras which can rid you of your marital, health, diabetic, alcohol related, financial problems and misfortune are being peddled relentlessly. In a nation obsessed with oppressive scientific education for its young ones the popularity of these shows reflects a gut wrenching irony.
- Lifestyle Shows : A giant my life is better than yours slap in the face. Entertaining, globe trotting, fat endorsing cookery and travel shows. They titillate you and tease you and are a pleasure to watch. But there are of course side effects, you watch roast chicken with jacket potatoes and ask your wife whats for dinner, she says doodhi ki sabzi and dal. If that doesn’t get you Nigella and her moves will. While offering a window to the world, shows about the rich and famous lifestyles have a tendency to leave even happy men wanting.
- Movies : These channels used to be our saviors and they still are, somewhat. While the Hindi channels have found a new fascination with action packed, dubbed, South Indian, films, Hollywood ones seemed to be obsessed with superhero flicks. Aaj ka Hero, Indra the Tiger, Shiva the Fighter, Don No1, Rakhwala No 1 and other imaginatively named films with flying Scorpios and scenes with Rohit Shetty envy seem very abundant. Mind you these still remain somewhat enjoyable with Prakash Raj or the guy who played Bulla in Gunda left wondering how could he lose the battle of Good vs Evil. For Hollywood you have repeat marathons of Avengers and the X Men. Or my favorite : Iron man in Hindi. Nothing like watching Robert Downey junior mouth : ” Mai hoon Loha Purush”. Repetition kills this category.
If this is what sells ….
I was wondering, like a mildly inebriated idealist, shouldn’t every organization especially one which produces content for consumption, have a moral and ethical responsibility? I don’t mean that they use recyclable toilet paper and car pool to work I mean responsibility in their line of work. Such vast audiences these channels have at their disposal and what they offer to them seems such a waste. Sure these audiences will dwindle if you start preaching to them but what about providing some healthy, quality entertainment? Before Is Des na Ana Lado we had shows like Dekh Bhai Dekh. News need not be flamboyant and sensational, it can make up by being educational and relevant. If channels like AlJazeera can achieve such standards in an Islamic nation with stringent expression laws why do we in India seem so incompetent in reporting what’s happening around us. Shouldn’t all channels hope to create decent stuff despite what seems currently popular?
The same holds true for music, movies and other media. Does not the act of lowering culture in society by the production of content like Chennai Express, Dhoom3 and the music of Pseudo Punjabi Pop idols disturb their creators? Bollywood has seen better days and yet does such little effort today for the indifferent janta who shall pay to watch anything. The crucifiction of literature by mediocre, smutty novels which make money for engineers with alternate careers. Its not that better stuff can’t be made, it is but elsewhere. I guess how you feel about all of this depends on how you answer the following :
” Do you give people what they want OR do you give them what they need ? “
Not that it makes too much of a difference to individuals after all who cares if all the restaurants in town serve crap when you know a place which cooks food to your liking. One could extend the argument to change all Mc Donald’s to salad bars for it might not be popular but seems rationally correct. The answer lies in the back bone of the Free market : natural selection of products by the unassuming consumer. Moral of the story :
We are watching what the majority of us have chosen.
Just as a cherry on top of this rather bitter cake here is classic scene from the
Network (1976) as Howard Beale explains Television