Abhinandan Sekhri worked with Newstrack & Aaj Tak from 1995-1999 as a reporter. He went on to write the political satire shows The Great India Tamasha and Gustakhi Maaf for NDTV (the latter won two telly awards), and then co-founded Small Screen, which made TV shows and docu films for Discovery, Nat Geo, Doordarshan, Fox Traveller, Living Foods, and NDTV including Highway On My Plate that won three Telly awards. In 2012, he co-founded media critique and current affairs webzine Newslaundry.
Gobbling Up Them TRPs
If you are served the ultimate junk food in the guise of an organic granola bar, wouldn’t you swallow it hook, line and sinker? Our TV fix – especially the stuff that masquerades as “primetime news” – does just that, and maybe that’s okay, Abhinandan Sekhri argues.
My household help informed me the other day, “Bhaiyya suna hai agle hafte duniya khatam ho jayegi.” And another time she had a question, “Woh bata rahe the ki ye JNU college mein padhne wale raat raat tak nange naachte hain. Aisa hai kya?”
TV news is the new comfort food
Ever since the twin alerts of hippie Whole Foods health nuts and Baba Ramdev yoga enthusiasts warned us about the dangers of processed and packaged foods, the urban-aspirational-Lays-munching-cola-guzzling generation needed the buzz that MSG (Monosodium Glutamate) provided in the good old days of lax food regulation. We needed a new fix and the deliciousness of Umami was replaced by TV News – which in spite of its rage, noise and vitriol has a ‘pleasant, delicious and savory taste’ (translation of Umami).
It was even better because it beat chips, colas and MSG, liberating us from the guilt associated with trashy comfort food. No calories, no quantifiable damage to the body. On the contrary, it made us feel better about ourselves – smarter and better informed, empowered and intellectual. The brain, most mysterious of our organs, has an unquantifiable abstract element to its activity – so too is the damage to it. What’s happening inside it is as good or bad as we think it is – and right now we think it is rocking. Thanks to cathartic TV news, which no matter how oily, deep fried and trans-fat laden it might in fact be, appears as a seemingly nutritious and organic yet tasty snack bar of political and social themes packaged in three-minute rants delivered by a Suhel Seth, Shobha De or Chetan Bhagat. Just watch and you can transform from the meek mild mannered not too informed Clark Kent to Superman, no wait, to an unreasonable Incredible Hulk with an opinion. Now we too can hold forth on an issue that was too complex and distant for us to care about or understand. Pop panelists are the new Kurkure and granola bar and sugar-laden smoothie rolled into one. All that, with no calories. Why would India not have an appetite for TV?
Bad is the new At-Least-Its-Better-Than-Nothing
Lest I sound too cynical, it’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering where we were a decade or so ago. It’s not ideal, but it’s good. In fact it’s probably great. At least now we all give a shit about stuff.
In the 1980s, Neil Postman wrote a book called Amusing Ourselves To Death – Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, a searing critique of what TV was doing to America. It pretty much wrote off TV as an informed medium positioning it as a tool that would lead to the cerebral decay of a people. Its main contention was that TV would fry the brains, starving the intellectual heft of the collective conscience with airwaves equivalent of junk food. Postman would argue that the rise of Trump proves just that: He is a reality TV star and it was his show ‘The Apprentice’ that made him a household name, a show that had humiliating people and saying outrageous things as its USP.
Closer home we know how stuff like that gets you on TV and from there depending on how you play your fame (or infamy) can even get you elected. Anti-intellectualism is being celebrated as a virtue not only in the US but also in India lately. The world intellectual often comes with air quotes or an eye roll. Reading too much or being aware of history and science is considered as some sort of an assault on tradition and culture. Donald Trump got way more airtime than any of his Republican rivals during the primaries and continues to be TV networks’ eyeballs-grabber because he says stuff like “You know, it really doesn’t matter what the media write as long as you’ve got a young, and beautiful, piece of ass.”; “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive”. And “We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.” Irrespective of how Trump meant it, let’s not confuse educated with literate or degrees with knowledge. TV is God for the age of the highly literate and poorly educated. Just as “real” (as Sarah Palin described the idiot base) America doesn’t read, “real” India doesn’t give a shit either. From Kunti’s first born Karna being a miracle of genetic science in ancient India to Lord Ganesha’s surgeon being the pioneer of transplanting heads, who cares how ludicrous the statement sounds as long as it’s delivered with confidence and panache. This is the made-for-TV age. And made-for-TV leaders.
Ignorance isn’t just bliss, its patriotic baby. Arun Shourie famously said in November last year referring to a few ministers – “these are people who would not have read a book in 20 years. This is a symptom of our times. People who have not read, who cannot write two paragraphs, they are the ones who are sitting in judgment on writers.” This is indeed a symptom of our times because now you no longer need to say “I read it in a book and so I know something on this” when you can simply say “I heard that on TV”. Why would we not binge consume that kind of instant gratification? But that’s not so bad because never have so many people wanted to scrutinize secularism, communalism, monetary policy, democracy, school and college syllabi, notifications by the HRD ministry, speeches in parliament and occasionally the piece of meat in your home. TV news feeds off, and feeds into that frenzy. This is better than being clueless. There is an appetite to know more and it is TV news that has whetted it. When we emerge from complete darkness into some illumination, twilight seems disturbing since all the chaos that was invisible until then is now kind of visible.
TV News is the new Roadies.
The runaway success of shows like Roadies, Splitsvilla and Bigg Boss was part of the TV boom of the early 2000s. An entire generation grew up on it and not on Chitrahaar, Aapke Liye, Krishi Darshan and Doordarshan News like some of us did in the 1970s and 80s. It didn’t take much to entertain us after years of that bland fare, but the generation that grew up on Roadies and the likes needed more. These shows thrive on humiliation, voyeurism and noisy conflict. Once you’re done with school and college, you can’t possibly discuss such shows during smoke breaks at the office café. Watching such trash as an adult is a double jeopardy – to social life and professional stature. You can’t possibly discuss in office who Pinky made out with in the pool and who Ankit slapped and how Rakhi humiliated Kamal. Besides, if you’ve spent considerable time watching Big Boss or Splitsvilla, it would make you question your own sense of self. Being party to that kind of indignity for nothing? Just to be entertained? No higher purpose? How horrible is that?
Now what if you could get that thrill with a public interest angle thrown in? Like eating at McDonald’s and being told it’s good for you and for society. After a certain age and having broken into the aspirational upwardly mobile lot, wanting to sound informed and not suffer blows to self-esteem by watching Big Boss is a most desirable side effect, and that’s precisely where TV News comes in. You can justify consuming that kind of reality content to yourself, if the ones humiliated, abused and assaulted (verbally, because thoda compromise karna hoga na) are party spokespersons, Suresh Kalmadi, Pakistani panelists, Kanhaiyya Kumar, Vijay Mallya, Sambit Patra, Sanjay Jha, NGO types, Hindutva types, Peter Mukherjea or anyone accused of a murder or rape – the list is endless. Not only does it gratify the appetite for the aesthetic that made Roadies and Big Boss hit shows, it provides a moral high too. One can feel good about being part of this tribe since it’s all in national interest and the humiliation is directed towards a reprehensible moral offender. It’s like a bender without a hangover. Win-win.
“Trolled is the new black”
Thus opined Bachi Karkaria,. in reference to the online backlash faced (in the wake of her disparaging comments directed at Indian athletes at Rio) by Shobha De– analyst, socio-political and pop-culture commentator, and one of India’s premium panelists on news channels. (By premium I mean she charges four to five times what ordinary panelists charge for appearing on primetime gabfests). This is because, one assumes, her opinion is informed, it matters and has a contagion as does other news content we consume.
That or what she says makes for good TV consumption even if not insightful. It provokes reactions. These TV shows “set the agenda” if not for policy, for debates, discussions and most importantly, click bait-y articles. Also for social media updates where we can deride or agree and generally create argumentative raunak on our Facebook pages.
TV studios are the new dives
In the good old days of Nehru, Tilak and Lincoln, one assumed discussions at chaupals, tea hangouts, lefty coffee homes, taverns, pubs and town-halls were informed and involved (as Postman says in his book), but they were also limited in their reach. The content may have been deep, but the spread was narrow. While online and offline platforms are available in case you want to delve deep into a subject, the lively dives for discussion are TV studios. The chatty bartender of the old tavern is now your news anchor and in some cases the obnoxious drunk rabble-rouser too. All this without having to inhale the noxious haze of a dive.
The puddles of embarrassing content that clutter TV are what society will have to wade across to dive into the details of all that reflects our choices, motivations, culture and direction as a civilization. Online libraries, newspapers or books (and e-books) and discussion platforms are not the preferred go-to places for most when they’re looking for information, but then neither were organic sprouts and whole wheat bread the preferred snack option. Bacon, sausage and Kellogs cereal will always be the default breakfast – and whatever you think of the nutritious value of that menu, the world as a whole is getting healthier with the number of undernourished falling. In spite of the MSG scare, processed foods and sugar overdoses, life expectancy went up for all of the latter half of the 20th century in almost every country (barring the ones ravaged by war). The developed world and affluent urban India are only dealing with juvenile and obesity induced diabetes now. A diet of cathartic dumbed down TV news that tickles our basest instincts still has not got us to that stage of sickness yet, and it’s possible it never will. For now TV news gives the wanting to be informed and intellectually stimulated yuppies a quick fix solution. And why not? If they can’t have organic muesli, let them eat cake – with MSG.
TV is the new theatre and studios the new stage
‘Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player. That struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing.’
Macbeth’s words, or rather Shakespeare’s. While it may amount to nothing at the end, it must be done – that’s life, and that’s TV. “You’re no one unless you’re on TV” Suzanne (portrayed by Nicole Kidman) informed us in ‘To Die For’ in the 90s and she was right. Your opinion matters nought unless delivered on TV. Rant all you want on social media trying to play catch up, but your next tweet or Facebook post matters only when TV news does a story around it.
TV is the new stage and primetime anchors pandering to public demand are its Shakespearean players. They started off with noble intentions of public service and talking truth to power which is journalism’s claimed objective and motivation, but then market realities and our collective ravenous yearning for more histrionics made them go for the TRP jugular and now they must continue to provide us with regular raw content since we viewers tasted blood.
Once Macbeth realized his folly, it did not matter. He had committed his course ‘I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er’. News anchors, today’s tragic heroes, for the sake of our insatiable appetites – like Macbeth must go on.