The recent onslaught of new reality programmes on general entertainment channels has once again brought this genre of programming into the limelight. Reality TV is not a new genre here; it has just become more popular (and controversial) now.
Reality shows are almost a decade old but thus far, soaps have reigned large in terms of television ratings.
With rising competition, however, in recent months, non-fiction-based programmes have made a stunning comeback, albeit in a new avatar—titillating reality programming.
After an overdose of saas-bahu (daughter-in-law-mother-in-law) soaps, the producers and also the audience seem to be happy lapping up more realistic soaps (fiction) and reality (non-fiction) programmes. In the list of the top 10 programmes on television currently are two reality shows and some socially relevant soap operas.
There are two things about reality shows that attract viewers and generate controversy: the concept of reality or realism; and the shock effect.
The concept of reality TV draws from realism in cinema. So, it’s a format that presents ordinary people in live, supposedly unscripted (though often deliberately manufactured) situations, and monitors or judges their emotions, behaviour or talent. Such formats usually invoke competition and provide big money as rewards.
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Still, the very dissonance between the fact that these programmes are real and relevant (for the audience) and that contestants usually compete in them for fame and money—thereby being willing to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do—raises issues related to the honesty of reality shows.
The situation is exacerbated when producers use the concept of reality to shock and awe audiences—one way to break through the clutter.
The result: reality shows are becoming more and more provocative and outrageous. As eminent film-maker Mahesh Bhatt says, “Today, washing one’s dirty linen on prime time is big business. We live in shameless times. People do not mind becoming guinea pigs in the name of reality to amuse the nation and make a quick buck. And the audience gets high on its daily dose of ‘reality’ about the private lives of people like themselves.’’
It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then that at least one such programme has run afoul of some politicians.
Last fortnight, some of these politicians raised this in Parliament, bringing to the fore issues such as content regulation and morality. Unfortunately, most politicians seem to get tangled in moral issues when it comes to content and the Delhi high court perceived the issue as “moral policing” before dismissing the two petitions against the show.
Meanwhile, producers and liberals say there is nothing wrong with such reality programmes and that realism on TV screens is merely holding up a mirror to happenings in society. Extremes coexist in India and it’s difficult to answer if television does indeed mirror reality. Still, it is clear that the mirror is selective in its distortions because of economic pressures. Whether its reality or any other genre of programming, the tendency to sensationalize and even misuse is a commercial exigency in television.
Clearly, reality television is another attempt to test all boundaries of tolerance. Without clear guidelines and no regulation or accountability in the broadcasting sector, the tendency of producers and broadcasters to push the envelope is obvious. Taking forward the Parliament discussion, as suggested by eminent director Shyam Benegal, we need an independent broadcast regulator in place at the earliest to look into these contentious issues.
Irrespective of this ongoing debate, television is an all-pervasive popular medium that does play a critical role in our society. Television is a reality in our country and we have to learn to live with it.
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