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Out of the box
Television hasn’t got smaller. It has become more ubiquitous and impossible to miss. Even if you don’t watch it on a TV set anymore.

Television is not what it used to be. I remember when there was one Hindi movie telecast on Sundays on the one channel, Doordarshan — we tried never to miss it. It signalled the end of the week and the start of a new school week. On Wednesdays, you had Chitrahaar — the closest we got to sampling what music channels were like. In the run up to 1982, when television first went colour during the Asian Games, some of us used colour screens on black-and-white monitors to see what the ‘colour’ experience would be like. Seems bizarre. It was, and it hurt our eyes.

Between the 1980s and the early 1990s, the face of television changed gradually. A show here, a series there pushed the envelope. The World This Week, Siddharth Basu’s Quiz Time, Yeh Jo Hai Zindagi, The Discovery of India, Tamas, Hum Log, Turning Point and Surabhi — in the context of their time, each of these shows was cutting-edge.

Sashi Kumar, my first boss, tried to push the line with his PTI TV shows on Doordarshan, but had to tread a fine line between government control and objectivity; he did it admirably with documentaries and news-based shows. But the only really independent news in the early 1990s was available on monthly video magazines that you borrowed from your local VHS store —Eyewitness, NewsTrack and Kaalchakra. There were interviews with terrorists, often censored by the government, features on Bollywood and some brilliant interviews with political leaders, with questions asked of them that no journalist would dare ask today.

Once Doordarshan launched its second channel, DD Metro, the tide turned. Soon there was a burst of all-Hindi content. Star Plus became all Hindi, like Zee; Discovery made an early entry. A number of private players mushroomed. Content began dumbing down. It became all about mass television viewership, about ratings. News had dedicated channels; from bulletins on the hour, it became 24-hour. CNN had clearly shown the way, by televising live the liberation of Kuwait by ‘allied’ forces.

In the entertainment sphere, Zee was the market leader, until Siddharth Basu’s Kaun Banega Crorepari and Ekta Kapoor’s soaps jerked the carpet from under its feet. To deal with Star’s almost overnight success, other channels began experimenting with reality television. Even as viewership fragmented, the total viewing universe grew. Indian television seems to be the most dynamic in the world not just in the sheer pace of change, but also in the apparently insatiable appetite viewers have for the new, the bold and the shocking.

From terrestrial transmission to cable to DTH; from single TV homes to a set in every room; from cathode ray tubes to flat screens, plasmas, LCDs and now HD and 3D, the face of television is evolving. Alongside these technology jumps, there is also the exploding regional space, with tens of millions of viewers in languages such as Bengali and Marathi, Tamil, Kannada and Telugu.

Audiences seem to tire easily today. Where a soap once ran for years without a break, broadcasters are now hard pressed to innovate. Talent-based reality shows are passé; trapping those who cheat on you is in. Getting married on TV has happened a few times and even ‘past’ lives have been explored. Big Bollywood stars, who would not have been caught dead doing TV in the early 1990s, now court the small screen, earning more than they would from a single movie.

Lifestyle and specialty channels are the new frontier for growth, with a slew of channel launches planned. Discovery and Nat Geo have already increased the number of channels on offer, and the number is growing. DTH makes it possible to have niche channels focused on the weather and gardening, for instance. Pay for what you watch. Technology makes that possible today, just as it makes it possible for you to watch television without ads on your video recorder, catch your favourite show on your mobile phone or follow it on the Internet. You don’t need to make an appointment to watch a show at a fixed time any more.

Turning to Doordarshan, it’s now seen as a distant, unsexy cousin to the glittering satellite options. Yet Doordarshan cannot be replaced as the true anchor of India’s reality. It may need to spruce up its act, marry entertainment to education. It should lose its seemingly partisan status in relation to the government and do what no satellite broadcaster would do — rural chat shows, use the camera to catalyse change and expose corruption, showcase stories of unsung heroes across myriad disciplines. The question is, will politicians ever set Doordarshan free to do this?

Politicians hold the keys to lots of things. Only they can help producers wrest the intellectual property rights of what they produce away from broadcasters, or create policy that acknowledges the new technology space and awesome pace of convergence and interactivity. Indians watched IPL on YouTube in massive numbers this time. Who would have thought that possible a few years ago? Citizen journalists do stories on cellphones and capture corruption, virtually live, unthinkable even in the 1990s. The consumer is becoming the creator. How viewers react impacts the storyline, leading to the creation of new characters and plot-lines.

Today every TV show worth its name has a transmedia ambassador whose job is to plug the show across myriad delivery systems such as DVD and Internet. Television hasn’t got smaller. It has become more ubiquitous and impossible to miss. Even if you don’t watch it on a TV set anymore.

Source: Business Standard

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