Dubious ethics of TV talent shows

BY s r ramanujan| IN Media Practice | 01/07/2008
It is not just phone-in programmes or reality shows which are not what they seem. There is something rotten in the ethics of TV broadcasting.
S R RAMANUJAN says the malaise is not confined to India.

The focus or rather charge on television channels has shifted, for a change,  from their tendency to sensationalise everything, be it a murder, adultery, rape or just plain crime, to reality shows which every channel – news or entertainment – have taken recourse to. The plight of Kolkata girl Shinjini Sen Gupta who is undergoing treatment at a Bangaluru hospital after she was rebuked by judges during a reality show on a Bengali channel has yielded yet another subject for talk shows. Though the medical experts at NIMHANS, Bengaluru are of the opinion that Shinjini’s depression could be the result of Acute Disseminated Encephalo-Myelitis (ADEM), a viral problem, reality shows would nevertheless continue to be in the focus for sometime. 


In all fairness to our Union Minister for Women and Child Welfare, Mrs Renuka Chaudhury, she hinted sometime ago that the reality shows on television are a sort of child labour as the children who would like to make it big on the small screen are exploited by the producers and are made to slog for hours together for a meager compensation. She also wanted a committee to go into this aspect of television production.


The inevitable question is how genuine are these reality shows. Are they meant to tap the hidden talent of the youth or are they just plain marketing? It cannot be denied that there are youngsters who used this forum to get bigger roles on the small or big screen; but that can only be a collateral fallout. For the channel proprietors and producers, it is simply yet another marketing tool to generate revenue. The participants in such shows are made to appeal to the audience for their vote via SMS. Unwary of the premium rates for  such messages/calls, unsuspecting viewers make calls only to find out when the cell phone bill comes that they have been taken for a ride because the slab is different for such messages. There is an unholy deal between the channels and cell phone operators in terms of sharing this revenue.


Besides reality shows, the SMS polls that face the nation, viewers opinion on a given subject via SMS are all money spinners for the channels. The viewer’s satisfaction is that he will see his name on the screen. True, such messages are full of blunders, but who cares so long as the  name appears. In fact, there are channels which are making more money through SMS than commercial spots.


 There is a music show on a Tamil channel (of course, every channel has similar shows) ostensibly for talent search. It reality the outcome on it is akin to match-fixing. There has not been a single participant who might have given wrong answers to the questions from the judges. One wonders whether the young singers are really so good or have they been briefed before the shoot. Even political talk shows are no different. The participants are briefed about the questions and the list of leaders participating in the programme.


This is not a unique feature of our desi channels. A couple of months ago, Hasan Suroor of the Hindu reported from London as to how phone-in TV shows are a big scandal in Britain. This included respected channels like BBC, ITV and Channel 4. Winners for phone-in competitions were "fixed". Viewers were encouraged to continue the premium rate phone calls even after the contest had been closed. Hasan says: "There were cases of winners being chosen even before the voting started; votes being rigged; studio guests being persuaded to pose as callers when a technical glitch prevented genuine viewers from calling; and producers resorting to gimmicks to create ‘tension’" According to him, the industry insiders feel that "such malpractices are inevitable in a climate of cut-throat competition with TV channels prepared to do anything to pull in viewers and attract advertising. Even the BBC, which doesn’t depend on commercial advertising, has been accused of chasing ratings to justify its licence fee".  


It is not just phone-in programmes or reality shows which are not what they seem. There is  something rotten in the ethics of television broadcasting. The malaise seems to be global. The talk shows in most of the American channels are reported to be notorious for disinformation and bias. If we go by some of the reports on the talk shows, we must admit that the Indian channels are not all that bad when compared with their American counterparts.


The New York Times (April 20, 2008) reported as to how there is Pentagon’s hidden hand in the analysis of television panelists. According to NYT, the internal Pentagon documents (800 pages of e-mail messages) to which they had access, repeatedly refer to the military analysts on television shows as "message force multipliers" or "surrogates" who could be counted on to deliver administration "themes and messages" to millions of Americans "in the form of their own opinions."


A Fox News analyst wrote back to the Pentagon "Good work. We will use it" when he was ‘supplied’ with Pentagon’s disinformation to be used as part of his views. Another Fox News analyst "displayed his eagerness to be supportive with his television and radio commentary" and wrote to Pentagon "Please let me know if you have any specific points you want covered or that you would prefer to downplay". This was in January 2007 before President Bush went on TV to describe the surge strategy in Iraq.


Some of these analysts, the daily revealed, were taken to Guantanamo and briefed as to how much had been spent improving the facility, the abuse endured by guards, the extensive rights afforded to detainees. "The results came quickly. The analysts went on TV and radio, decrying Amnesty International, criticizing calls to close the facility and asserting that all detainees were treated humanely", the daily reported.


We can safely assume that this can happen in our channel news rooms and talk shows as well. Though there is no evidence to pinpoint them, "surrogates" for the administration were present in the talk shows during the Kargil conflict and currently during the discussions on the Indo-US nuclear deal. Many of our experts are from institutes funded by the government and manned by ex-officials and servicemen.  As long as there is no independent regulatory mechanism or a sort of ombudsman for control over the unethical practices of our channels, armed with punitive powers, the Indian broadcasting scenario could go from bad to worse.  





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