Story of the ‘idiot box’

There is a need to check the negative power of television
Story of the ‘idiot box’
Representational Pic

World Television Day was marked on November 21 (Sunday). The day is annually celebrated in the context of the invention and development of the television. The development of television has its own tale in India. Its journey started as an experiment on September 15, 1959 when the government launched Doordarshan in Delhi. Over a period of time, the popularity of television grew by leaps and bounds. The kind of its influence and reach has made it unmatched in the field of mass communication as it caters to all irrespective of caste, creed and colour.

When I started studying television (TV) as one of the core subjects while pursuing Masters in Mass Communication & Journalism in 1986, I found it to be synonymous with Doordarshan. During that time, the Doordarshan was the only TV channel available in the country. The variety of programmes produced to educate, entertain and inform the audiences were a delight to watch. Even if some programmes were not to the liking of a segment of audience, gluing to the television sets was itself an entertaining time as there were no alternative TV channels at that time. As a student of mass communication, it was always interesting to listen to the communication experts referring to television as an ‘idiot box’. Though the experts introduced television as the most powerful medium of communication, yet it was confusing for us when they simultaneously used to derogatorily refer to it as ‘idiot box’.

However, the fact is that this medium of mass communication, Television, has proved a powerful tool to transform societies and communities for betterment. In other words, this ‘idiot box’ is a powerful engine of social change which has the huge ability to mold public opinion. This audio-visual medium is loaded with a huge strength to serve as a catalyst in ending conflict situations by connecting people of different communities and regions. Today, the public including intellectuals as well as illiterates looks up-to television for something or the other as the medium offers a variety of experience by bringing a host of global, national & regional events of importance live into their homes. The beauty of the medium is that it has brought incredible things closer to common lives.

However, all these powerful positives are entirely dependent on the content of programmes run on the television. The drivers of the TV channels are loaded with huge responsibilities while tailoring content of the programmes. So, in a way, the quality of content of programmes decides whether television is an ‘idiot box’ or not.

It is not an ‘idiot box’ at all when it is used to run public-interest campaigns to sensitize people, spread awareness, and disseminate government programmes and policies for the good of people. A variety of infotainment programmes and helping the people to make informed choices about product and services available in the market doesn’t make it an ‘idiot box’.

Precisely, it would be blasphemous to call television an ‘idiot box’ as long as it serves the general public with genuine and decent content-based programmes loaded with education, entertainment and information without hurting the sentiments of a region, community or society.

Now, coming to the present situation, which reveals all is not well with this mass medium. After the influx of private channels, the television stands are grossly misused. With the advent of technology, the production of television programmes has witnessed a technical revolution, but the quality of content has deteriorated as far as the country’s ethos and cultural heritage is concerned.

Here the main question arises. Is the power of the television medium utilized judiciously by Indian television channels? I can safely vouch for ‘No’. Take the case of news network channels. They are engaged in a mad race of increasing television rating points (TRP). During this course these television channels indulge in an act of churning out glorified handouts tailored for specific personalities, organizations etc. on screen.

Notably, the race for TRPs among private television news channels was described as ‘Blood Pressure Raising Points (BRPs)’ by a former Prasar Bharati chairman, A. Surya Prakash. While taking a dig at the news channels which keep having eight to 10 panelists debating at the top of their voices, he rightly observed that no other country in the world seems to have this kind of a ‘maara maari’ on TV news channels.

However, one thing is certain that the race for TRP through unethical means has marred credibility of these channels.

Since breaking news mania has engulfed these channels while sensationalizing even the ordinary happenings around us, they seem to be losing sense. At the moment it makes sense for communication professionals in true sense to introspect over the need for responsible communication at least through the powerful medium of television.

Precisely, the media has to keep itself away from biased reporting on nationalism, patriotism and other diversity issues during a situation prevailing here. The ‘patriotic’ anchors have to keep it in mind that aiming to raise TRP through the ‘sensational’ coverage of incidents may register highly increased TRP, but the channel is going to lose the impact. Once impact is lost, it can result in their revenue loss.

However, it is not ‘negativity’ of the news channels alone, but the content of programmes run in the name of family drama too, that merits a mention of igniting ‘negative’ social change. Indian television after being predominantly run by private players has earned a reputation of maligning the Indian societies through its content more than bringing positive social change within the Indian societies. Code of ethics remains a distant dream for these television channels.

Gone are the days when television was a medium which used to get all members of a family to sit as a full unit to watch programmes full of family content. But following tremendous advancement in the medium, which saw unending expansion of TV channel networks coupled with revolution in programme production, the families started disintegrating. This disintegration owes its origin to falling moral values promoted through programmes telecast from these television channels.

The changing pattern of television programmes today promoting immoral values has brought embarrassment to the responsible parents as watching a TV serial or a reality show with their kids is as good as sitting on a live time bomb. The themes of the programmes, serials (obviously not all of them) etc. today don’t fit in a family where parents and kids jointly can watch the TV.

At the moment it makes a sense for television professionals, be it in news presentation or family drama production, to introspect in true sense over the need for socially and politically responsible content of programmes. They have to keep themselves away from biased reporting on nationalism, patriotism and other diversity issues. The ‘patriotic’ anchors aiming to raise TRP through ‘sensational’ coverage of incidents end up losing the channels’ impact. Once impact is lost, revenue is lost.

Meanwhile, in the name of creativity in content development, particularly in advertisements, vulgarity has been let loose. What’s most surprising is that these vulgar ads focus more on obscenity than on the product or service of a company.

Advertising is a communication tool which reaches the entire family sitting together in the dining room. Ours is a society where a majority still has a single television set in their family, where parents and kids watch TV together. An ad showing a young man attracting gorgeous women, just because he uses a certain kind of deodorant, is really sending the wrong signal to society, particularly to the young minds.

The ad business needs to be put under scanner and severe strictures should be passed on those who promote vulgarity. There’s need to draw a line between informative, creative and vulgar ,to help the social change for betterment.

(The views are of the author & not the Institution he works for)

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.

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