One of the most important trends in recent decades has been the rising importance of entertainment. Spurred by advances in new communication technologies entertainment has become a serious business. This is also true in the broadcast business where television has emerged the highest revenue grosser.
The launch of new entertainment channels, novel programming, and changes in the kinds of soaps being aired have, in recent months, focused attention on this genre. A watershed in the 50-year history of Indian television was the launch of a soap opera with social messages, Hum Log in the 1980s. This opened the gates for indigenous productions that could be commercially viable while socially relevant in keeping with the Doordarshan mandate.
However, over the past two decades, the message or the social angle of these serials has been discarded. The entry of private channels driven by advertising revenue seems to have further diluted the social relevance of soaps. Thus, it became common to have soap operas built around heavily made-up women who switch husbands; plotting and scheming wives; and unrealistic melodramatic plots.
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Change, when it came to entertainment channels, merely meant a move from Bollywood-related programmes to reality shows and talent competitions.
However, we are beginning to see some experimentation in the kind of soaps being aired on television channels. It could be the competition, or the need to innovate, but socially relevant serials seem to be back on mainstream entertainment channels. Thus Colors has Balika Vadhu and Zee TV has Agle Janam Mohe Betiya hi Kejo.
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In many ways, the state-owned broadcaster has always been at the vanguard of this move and it continues to remain there. Previous Doordarshan serials such asUdaan, Rajni, and Hum Rahiwere built around socially relevant themes and had messages. The latest initiative from Doordarshan is the Unicef-led life skills-based popular soap called Kyunki Jeena Issi ka Naam Hai.
This serial is perceived to be more realistic, motivational, educative, inspirational, even entertaining. It has been the most popular soap on Doordarshan since its 2008 launch.
The result of a collaboration between Unicef, Doordarshan, and the ministry of health and family welfare, the aim of this prime-time soap is to reach around 40 million women in the Hindi heartland with messages on the development and welfare of children. These messages are subtly embedded in the plot.
Entertainment, whether via a nation’s airwaves, popular magazines, or newspapers, is the most pervasive mass media genre. It influences how people dress, speak, think, and behave. Recognizing this, organizations such as Unicef are using entertainment to spread messages on how people can live safer, healthier and happier lives. This strategy is popular across the world.
Research shows that such entertainment programmes generate positive interest and results. For example, when popular American soaps such as Bold and the Beautiful and Friends incorporated health messages in their storyline, their ratings saw a dramatic increase. Judging by the increasing interest in and ratings of message-based soaps, the strategy seems to have worked at a commercial level in India. That could well mean that viewers get to see more meaningful stories and less senseless drivel.
Graphics by Ahmed Raza Khan / Mint
P.N. Vasanti is director of New Delhi-based multidisciplinary research organization Centre for Media Studies. Your comments and feedback on this column, which runs every other Friday, are welcome at email@example.com