Saturday, April 21, 2007

The docile Indian viewer
Amita MalikAmita Malik

SOME years ago, I was in London when a BBC newscaster is pronounced a word. A producer in the BBC, who was a friend of mine, told me later that the BBC’s telephone lines had been jammed with angry protests from viewers. She said this was not unusual because viewers are very fussy about the BBC since it rightly enjoys the reputation of being one of the most reliable and professional channels in the world. But there is more to it than that. The British listener or viewer considers the BBC almost belongs to him and he has the right to be possessive about it. Because the BBC runs on tax-payers’ money, since it is financed solely by licence fees. Only the external services of the BBC receive a subsidy from the government, otherwise it is completely free of any sort of government control.

In fact, it goes even beyond that. During the Falklands war with Argentina, the BBC criticised the then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher over the war. She was furious. But the BBC had the support of the British public. In India the case is just the opposite. It is because radio and TV started as government organisations.I remember as a child my father used to pay a licence fee for our radio set but that was also abolished. So the listener had lost his vote over what he wanted from radio. And although there is tall talk of autonomy, it is no secret that radio and TV are both government run and controlled, and no matter which government is in power, it makes full use of these powerful propaganda weapons to give itself free and unchallenged publicity.

Since no Indian believes that he can really seriously challenge a sarkari-run institution, a belief grew on the part of both listeners and viewers that at best they had to grin and bear it. A joke of Kolkata TV ran as follows: "Which programme do you watch most?" "Sorry for the interruption is the name of my favourite programme", replied the funny man on the screen. However, with the advent of private TV, matters have changed because these channels depend on something called ratings, whereas government channels do not have to bother about any such thing. So now with radio and TV columns going strong, even DD is given brickbats or ignored altogether since nothing can be done about it.

The private channels have that terrible weapon called ratings hanging over their heads. Yet even with this new-found freedom, I find the Indian viewers amazingly apathetic. I frequently come across people at receptions and other gatherings who come up to me and say: "We thoroughly agree with what you said about that programme". I reply: "So why don’t you protest about it and strengthen the hands of those of us who are trying to make viewers aware of their rights?" "Oh, ji", is the usual sheepish reply as the person sinks away slyly, saying "you can do it much better than us". And that remains that. The only viewers who protest do so on mainly personal grounds— they have not been given a fair deal in a competition or a good enough hearing in a discussion programme.

Last week the offices and cars of Star TV’s Mumbai staff were ransacked and destroyed by a little known fundamentalist organisation because it objected to the channel having given a hearing to a familiar story about a Hindu and Muslim couple defying their parents and running away from home to get married.

From what I saw of the news item, the channel did not take sides but it was strictly within the law since inter-communal marriages are perfectly legal under Indian law. In fact, finding that the girl was a minor, the channel brought the boy to the attention of the police who sent the girl to a remand home. In other words the channel had done no wrong. As I said, it is a pity that when viewers protest, it is sometimes for the wrong reasons.

That TV itself can provoke strong reactions to what viewers consider un-Indian or otherwise unacceptable behaviour was proved recently by the violent protests that followed the infamous Gere-Shilpa Shetty kiss. However, what struck me about Shilpa Shetty’s spirited but unconvincing defence was her bizarre claim that she and Richard Gere "were doing a dance performance to entertain the 4,000 truck drivers" in the auditorium. Some dance that, with kisses thrown in all over the place. Shetty forgot she was not in London. And Indian Big Brother is much more tough.