Are shows that go over the top really popular with the audience? There is an opinion divide out there.

Way back in 1990s, Pamela Anderson was the talk of the living room, as a saucy lifesaver in “Baywatch”. Around the same time India got to see “The Bold and the Beautiful”. With its values and attractive ‘Forrester' cast, it was a hit with the college youth then, and indeed a revelation for the post-“Hum Log” audience.

Come 2010, Pamela Anderson returns to the tube. Again she features in coffee shop chats. This time in her desi avatar, sari, bangles et al, she sashays into the “Big Boss” house. If her entry is an indicator of the things people do to up the TRP on Indian channels, there is more chinwag surrounding Rakhi Sawant's controversial ‘insaaf', following the suicide of a contestant on her show allegedly triggered by her personal comment on the participant. But haven't we seen even worse humiliation in “Emotional Atyachar”, “Splitsvilla” and other reality shows?

Says Diana Monteiro, counselling psychologist and director, Hyderabad Academy of Psychology, “The five minutes of fame lure can be devastating. The personality structure that evolves from participating or watching shows like “Emotional Atyachar” or “Rakhi ka Insaaf” is not healthy. An individual's coping ability decides if a person can sail through the challenges posed during reality shows and it depends on their previous experiences. People with low ego strength — the ability to cope in the midst of adversity — succumb to such remarks. Unfortunately we are in an era where reality shows are part of our lives.”

So, have you seen “Big Boss” today? What happened to Samir Soni or who won the challenge, are questions one often comes across during our living room and dining table conversations these days. Pushing it to a 11.00 p.m. slot is a topic that has everyone giving their two cents' worth. There is a section of the audience that believes that such shows can erode the social fabric with their abusive banter and vulgarity. Sangeetaa Mehra, a corporate communication professional with a leading business house, opines that television is responsible for the breakdown of communication in the families, where all that a family does after they return home is to watch the reality shows together. “Participants have entered the living and drawing rooms. And this does not stop here. You call up your relative and give a blow-by-blow account on the day's episode. People with fractured emotional lives are put together — those from broken families, bad marriages, divorcees and so on — in a house which people watch daily, taking all its negative impact while the producer laughs his way to the bank.

Sheer sensationalism

Ironically, the TRP of the reality shows, despite the sensation generated daily over news and sister channels, does not cross a constant 2-3. “These shows create news but that doesn't convert to TRPs. Daily soaps and other top shows with a broader viewer base are the ones that have high TRPs. Even in the West, shows like “American Idol” are more popular when compared to shows like “The Jerry Springer Show” or “Cheaters”. It is tricky to adapt these shows as you need to keep the Indian sensibilities in mind. Unfortunately producers and broadcasters are stooping to such a level that it is leading to all these social debates,” says a former content lead of a reality show. Adultery, incest, prostitution and fetishes that make for content in reality shows abroad are still nascent, untested themes when it comes to Indian TV. “Sach ka Samna”, based on “The Moment of Truth”, did leave a mixed aftertaste with Indian viewers.

Two sides

The other side of the debate has pro-reality show buffs watching all the seasons religiously. Dolly Bindra, Seema Parihar, Ashmit Patel, Khali, Shweta Tiwari and Samir Soni are icons they love. People with ‘interesting' lives planted on the tube to spice up the evenings of a mundane office-goer, in the parlance of the television fraternity. “It is thorough entertainment and makes you discuss what is right and wrong, what you are not supposed to do in society,” says Jasjit Singh, an entrepreneur.

“These are better than suggestive songs in films and television soaps, which show rape, wedding nights and affairs. Here you see the actors in their true colours. The cuss words are muted. We watch “Big Boss” with our 16-year-old son and there is no embarrassment whatsoever,” says Neelu C., a house wife.

Issues of censorship to protect the gen- next is a debate that has people locked in points and counter-points.

Will the shows impact young minds? Will they imitate the behaviour as an accepted thing? Is the State's role protecting the younger audience from certain kinds of ‘entertainment' justified? “If the government says anything it will be dubbed censorship. There is a deliberate effort to confuse regulation and censorship. Going by these arguments, we will all be told that pornography on prime-time TV is okay because children have access to Internet. The problem with both pornography and sleazy entertainment is that they show willing women in a degrading way. The women involved are clear that they are doing it for the money. But when they are seen by the audience in a reality show, it is reality for them. Example: when Mummaith Khan came to dance at a bar on New Year's day, she was nearly physically abused by a mob of men despite the security around her. She left in a huff,” argues Padmaja Shaw, faculty, Department of Mass Communication and Journalism, English and Foreign Languages University.

That the reality shows are an extension of the society that thrives on drama and where gossip and “uske ghar me kya ho raha hai” is the norm, is the new talking point. “We are a culture that likes watching drama in other people's lives. This is making it socially acceptable to talk about these shows in get-together,” says Monteiro.

Some good ones too

Reality shows per se are not a bad idea. Talent hunts have been a launching pad for many deserving youth from remote places who wanted to try their luck in playback singing or television without godfathers. A case in point is the “Indian Idol” which had a youth from Tawang realise his dreams in Mumbai.

“It's only some kinds of shows that attract regulation. Will any government say show “KBC” or “Indian Idol” after 11 p.m., even if Pamela Anderson comes to “KBC”? All reality shows are not the same. But the truth is the genre of the “Big Boss” kind is the cheapest and does not involve encouraging writing or scripting talent. It fishes for second rung talent long forgotten and with relatively low costs fills up broadcast hours, creates artificial response through outrageous behaviour and gets more bang for the buck, government response, media debates and a lot of free mileage,” says Shaw.

As for now, the shows continue to create the masala content for viewers to lap it up. The other options for the audience remain news channels, some of which have entertaining news that can vouch for a better TRP than the reality shows. Accept the format of the reality shows, where the content is pre-designed to create commotion, else watch the milder TLC showcasing delectable cookery shows and exotic destinations is the way to go for rest of us.