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Reality bites

Print edition : Dec 17, 2010 T+T-
Film actor SalmanKhan and former 'Baywatch' star Pamela Anderson on the sets of the reality show Big Boss' in Mumbai on November 19.-RAFIQ MAQBOOL/AP

Film actor SalmanKhan and former 'Baywatch' star Pamela Anderson on the sets of the reality show Big Boss' in Mumbai on November 19.-RAFIQ MAQBOOL/AP

What Indian television needs is a dominant public broadcaster that sets the benchmarks in technical and artistic quality for the private channels to emulate.

THE recent directive of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to some channels to shift their reality shows to after 11 p.m. has predictably resulted in a chorus of comment, some for and some against it. The former see it as a brave attempt to safeguard the young from what is perceived to be vulgar, tasteless and even obscene; the latter see it as an infringement on the fundamental rights to freedom of expression, or at least the beginning of a process that will end that right, eventually.

It is tempting to take the standard view that both are partly right and partly wrong, but that is not really the point. The point is about what appears on television and why; about what authorities such as the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting believe is television and what private television channels believe it is.

The present debate and flurry of comments make it clear that there is no similarity between the two views, except peripherally. The authorities believe that television is a medium to entertain, educate and inform people at least that is what they say. A sizeable section of those in authority really believes that it is nothing more than a medium to propagate the government's views through various programmes, including, be it said, entertainment programmes, throwing in the occasional scrap of pure entertainment such as a film, or music and dance programmes considered cultural.

The owners of private TV channels look at the medium differently. It is a means of making money, no different from playing the stock market. Television to them means using programming to increase the amount of money that can be made; if one format does not make money, change to one that does. Particularly in the entertainment field, the touchstone is whether a programme is, to use the rather basic language used in this business, grabbing enough eyeballs and can grab more of them.

There is the probably apocryphal story of a Russian television network where the news presenter invariably a comely young woman would gradually shed her clothes until the final stories were presented by her in the buff. The objective was to get more viewers, who would switch to that channel for whatever reason. No doubt, this is a highly exaggerated if not wholly fictitious story, but the point it makes is valid. Every programme must get as many eyeballs as it can. Obviously, it means more money. Hence the reality shows, which have attracted the ire of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (and many more besides).

Why has Indian television descended to this level? The answer is, of course, for the money. And for that the channels resort to the unashamed copying of popular programme formats from Western networks. But that is not the full answer. A full appreciation of the issue will mean taking a close look at the state-funded television network, Doordarshan, now a part of an autonomous corporation, Prasar Bharati. It will also mean taking a close look at how publicly funded television (and radio) networks in other countries have functioned in comparison to the private channels that have come up there. For example, the public broadcaster in Japan, NHK, and its position and role vis-a-vis the private channels in that country, or the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in the United Kingdom and the private channels there.

A study made several years ago by McKinsey & Company established that these and some other public broadcasters were the dominant broadcasters in their countries and set the standards for quality of programmes; private channels had to approximate these standards and quality to be able to get some of the market share.

It is unlikely that in the intervening years this trend will have changed very drastically, as it is a trend that has grown almost inexorably over several years, and there has been no cataclysmic change in television broadcasting in these countries to warrant a complete turnaround. The study identified what made these public broadcasters so dominant: the amounts spent on programmes was very substantial; the people selecting and making these programmes were among the finest in terms of aesthetic sensibilities and good taste; and, above all, the networks were not dependent on advertisement revenues. In fact, some networks, such as the BBC, domestically, and NHK, take no advertising at all.

That is the key. Freedom from dependence on advertising revenue means freedom from the desperate need to grab eyeballs. Obviously, public broadcasters want more and more people to watch their programmes; but rather than pander to the coarsest propensities of the coarsest section of their viewers, these networks depend on people watching their programmes because they are so very well, and in some cases lavishly, made. They, too, have shows Britain's Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing are two such besides the Graham Norton Show, the Jonathan Ross Show and others. All these shows are entertaining, even though not everyone would care for them, and they do not need to descend to vulgarity and coarse language, or pander to the least intelligent of their viewers. They have very large audiences, but do not need desperately to seek more eyeballs. They have their own sources of funding, which makes that unnecessary.

These examples highlight what Doordarshan could have been, had it been allowed to function on its own. Until the Planning Commission pleaded and persuaded Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to agree, she was against Doordarshan taking any advertising at all. (That she also saw it as a means of presenting the government's point of view was another matter.) She clearly saw that market forces would inevitably take control of content, as in fact they have. But hers was not the ideal prescription, certainly; to attract the finest talent to it Doordarshan needed to pay really attractive salaries, far in excess of the government scales of pay. Had it done so, many talented persons would not have migrated to Mumbai and the film world, and later to the burgeoning world of private television. The BBC's Director General gets, it is said, an annual salary in excess of $1.5 million. No one is saying that is what the DG of Doordarshan should get, but the general idea holds good here too, especially as far as professionals are concerned.

Imagine a producer in Doordarshan drawing a monthly salary of upwards of Rs.2.5 lakh, with a house, car, entertainment allowance and proportionate pensionary benefits. That does not mean paying existing producers such salaries, but truly attracting outstanding professionals from the open market.

Imagine if the non-performers were pensioned off and, over time, Doordarshan began presenting programmes that were provocative, attractive, expensively made, conforming to the highest standards of technical and artistic quality. It would inevitably attract more and more viewers, and if it was not dependent on advertising revenue, which the Planning Commission and Ministry of Finance have now made it do, it would, like a true public broadcaster, set the tone, the benchmark.

Being the shrewd readers of market trends that they are, marketing gurus of private channels would see which way the wind was blowing and the content of their channels would begin to change.

That is the ideal solution. A dominant, trend-setting public broadcaster alone would make all debate and discussion on vulgarity and the need or the danger of censorship, of asking channels to change timings of programmes and all the rest irrelevant. The question is how practical such a course is, given the realities of the existing situation.