Saturday, October 7, 2006

The tyranny of ads
Amita Malik

Amita MalikWe long-suffering viewers and sports lovers had suspected it for some time, but we had not realised it was quite as bad as that. It took a special edition of NDTV’s Cricket Controversies programme to confirm that one channel shows only four balls of an over and another shows five balls of an over, instead of the mandatory six, so as to fit in their advertisements. Let alone our long-standing complaint of not showing the exit of a player or the winning shouts of teams, even commentaries in between overs, when valuable analyses are done by experts, have long been defunct. So, as usual, the viewer comes last.

It all started when DD had the monopoly. Things got so bad that it was even alleged that producers and cameramen were compensated by advertisers if their cameras lingered long enough on the advertisements on the stands surrounding the playing field. No doubt that was crude enough, but there was at least a pretence of letting viewers watch the actual play.

Now the so-called independent channels which run sports events have picked up the worst aspects from DD and added a few of their own. Such as letting a woman in noodle straps sit in with the commentators under the plea of being a "hostess" — as Mandira Bedi proudly claimed in a recent programme. She said she only dressed the way hostesses do on TV, it was "quite ordinary". Except that she forgot to mention that there is a difference between being a hostess in a filmi programme and a cricket match. We also heard that old excuse that having a woman hostess asking silly (not admitted by Mandira) questions would attract women viewers and not, as we all suspect, male voyeurs.

If women have to be attracted then why not have a professional woman commentator? Some of our best print media cricket commentators are women and some of them are very attractive too. So why create this pointless media bias as an excuse? As Mandira herself admitted, the woman commentator on Max is a qualified cricket commentator, her expertise is on a par with her male colleagues and that seems much more acceptable than sexy hostesses in noodle straps cluttering up the cricket commentaries with their cloying presence.

And this sort of commercialisation of viewing at the viewers’ expense is not confined to sport. Anyone who watches feature films on TV gets a hammering of ads as well. I have timed this several times: If a feature film starts at 4 pm, it usually ends after 8 pm. Reason? The films take from two to two and a half hours, the remaining two or one and a half hours are given over to advertisements. And these are not done decently at the beginning or end of the films but break up the action at climactic moments so that one is compelled to watch the ads if one is to see the rest of the film. This is a form of crude blackmail which would not be tolerated anywhere else, where viewers are treated as valued customers and not slaves. Clearly some sort of code should be drawn up, and this is one area where I would not even mind a government diktat to rein in our greedy and anti-social advertisers and the producers who batten on them.

I have heard some people comment that in a secular state there should not be so much coverage of our religious festivals on TV. I stoutly contest this. Ram Lila, Durga Puja, the wonderful scenes when thousands break their Ramzaan fast and dig into some of the most wonderful food, is something we have enjoyed as part of our culture. I enjoy every moment of the coverage on TV, of the pandals in Kolkata where innovation ranges from idol-makers creating the most wonderful terracotta sculptures to artists making images out of buttons, and not to forget the transformation of Mahishasur into Greg Chappel, which was later banned.

What fun it was to see literally truckloads of sevian (vermicelli) driving up to Jama Masjid for the after-fast feasts to follow. All this is an essential part of Indian life. It gives us so much visual and audio pleasure because of television, that let us not carp about it but just be grateful that these old traditions have not only survived but also give us so much joy.