Do programmes like “Rakhi ka Insaaf” and “Big Boss 4” reflect the real world out there, a fast-changing India with all its fault lines? Do we really need to shield our children from these shows, as the government has recently done by giving them a latenight slot? Or are we letting market forces get away with regressive stereotypes in their race for more and more eyeballs?

In television today, the marketplace has become the arbiter of not only good taste and morality, it has also assumed that it is capable of comprehending what we see as developmental or social challenges. “The market decides” is the new mantra that is being proclaimed. Even children's perceptions, we are told, should not be underestimated, they will “adjust” to all the so-called fault lines. Let us not make too much brouhaha or be hypocritical about throwing a protective arm around them because they are, after all, living in a “real world” with so much happening beyond anyone's control or regulation.

In fact, by this logic, neither of the two serials that are in the centre of a debate, “Rakhi ka Insaaf” nor “Bigg Boss 4”, should be perceived as not fit for family viewing. If anything, both programmes are a reflection of the changing face of India. “Rakhi” challenges all the conventional class determinants and “Bigg Boss 4” goes one step further and breaks even the sanctity of privacy. Rakhi, a small town girl, not quite conversant with English, adopting in-the-face antics, goes against the grain of what we perceive as “people like us”. But slowly we have begun to accept her and she has brought with her a certain candour that is refreshing and at times quite blunt and hard-hitting. Having caught the imagination of the middle class, she has gone beyond the image of an “item girl” and invented and reinvented herself in different ways. She not only takes us through the first TV Swayamvar, but is also seen on news channel, and in programmes like “Aap ki Adalat”, entertaining news anchors and viewers with her unconventional and even outrageous comments on serious issues. The channel has now decided to celebrate her as today's role model and make her the true arbiter of other people's morality. And, of course, true to her persona, she is not in the business of dispensing justice but is busy apportioning blame, insulting participants and unravelling the bitter truth in the most unbecoming and crass fashion.

A mockery?

For Vidhushi, a postgraduate student from Amity College, clearly Rakhee is “making a mockery of justice”. And after seeing a similar show by Kiran Bedi, she feels that in comparison she comes out quite hollow. She fears that since “people who are in genuine need of help may get conned”, the “programme should be scrapped”.

It is not surprising that Rakhee is embroiled in many legal battles. The family of one contestant has accused her of abetting the suicide committed by their son and another has charged her with fraud and wrongful presentation. But all this is a small prize to pay for catching eyeballs and drawing new viewers to the channel.

Similarly, “Bigg Boss 4” encouraged the main anchor Dolly Bindra to spout profanities and unleash a tirade against other inmates and as one of the contestants, Sameer Soni, stated, it was not the co-participants but the “Bigg Boss” programme itself that is “responsible for the chaos”.

In both cases, the government has responded by slotting the programmes in the late night segment with no repeat telecasts during the day.

On the back foot

It is clear that, with media and technology galloping at an alarming pace and channels waging a highly competitive struggle to stay in the race, it appears difficult for the many advocates of child rights and other vulnerable groups to go beyond the passionate plea of how “harmful and regressive” such depictions and portrayals are. The standard response is to “use the remote” as no one needs to be the prisoner of bad tastes.

The present imbroglio and stand-off between the government and channel is nothing new. In 1993, after Choli ke Peechey became a hit and heralded the trend of double entendre numbers and the mushrooming of many song and dance shows, the government cracked down on it. Such grandstanding happens now and then with periodic assurances that a more appropriate regulatory mechanism will be legislated. This is an oft-repeated assurance with the rituals of setting up committees, sub-committees and expert groups, often under the watchful eye of the industry and the tight-lipped authorities. We often wonder whether this is a ploy for diffusing the crisis.

Soon it becomes business as usual. This is amply borne by the evidence that has emerged all these years. Since 1995, the Centre for Advocacy and Research has been monitoring television content and tracking viewer response, especially that of women and children. We have found that violence is a central element of TV fiction and virtually drives the plot and keeps the viewer hooked.

As far back as 1999, a study, The Killing Screen, revealed that there were in all 759 distinct acts of violence across the five channels that were studied over a period of nine days. Nearly one-third, or 283 acts, appeared in the genre of horrors/mystery/thrillers and suspense and with the ratings indicating high viewership among children for such programming, we found that the advertising support had a fair number of child-specific advertising. Even more worrisome was that when two years later we examined the effects of media violence in five cities and found that the “overload of violence” on the screen — news, fiction, horror serials and in dramatised form — had left the children extremely confused. They could not distinguish between reality, and the reel and indeterminate world of the supernatural. Each one informed and reinforced the other at all levels in an ongoing, cyclical process, to the extent that children were no longer able to distinguish one from the other. More importantly, given the levels of violence in all media forms and its equally strong presence in real life, we found children living in an atmosphere of high emotional conflict and physical violence. Such problematic portrayals and depictions persist.

In response to these concerns, many parents are veering to the view and being encouraged to take the position that that it is better that we expose children to all the complex realities of life as and when these present themselves and, of course, courtesy the media and like a true mentor and friend, help the children to make sense of it and not get into an emotional or psychological turmoil. We cannot fault this position. With parents and guardians taking ownership, it is the best case scenario and, in a sense, indicating our maturing as a society.

But what is worrisome is that viewers end up accepting the fare that is being dished out. For want of any space or mechanism to learn about the effects of such programming, engage with the evidence that is emerging, debate and develop a consensus on how to cope with its differential effect on viewers, they offer various explanations to justify watching such programming. Some claim that they are discerning viewers and do not get carried away and some take the position that the viewing is voluntary, participative and helps them to get “real”, avoid the pitfalls of life and in many ways prepare them for the big bad world outside.

Whose needs?

And yet, with many people being affected by such portrayals and depiction, some even ending in death or in extreme depression, it is difficult to categorise it as programming that is driven by the viewer or reflecting the “real” needs of all sections of viewers. The National Commission for Women claims that it has received many complaints and there is a whole section of viewers out there who feel extremely angry and estranged by such programming and are demanding decisive action against them. These shows display the worst possible combinations of violence, vulgarity and exhibitionism.

Madhu, a homemaker from Tilak Nagar, Delhi, says, “I am reminded of the discomfort I had 10 years ago when I could not watch TV sitting with my children. “Rakhee Ka Insaaf” has brought back those same feelings. Everything about her, from the way she dresses, gestures, contorts her face, spews words, makes it very difficult for me to watch it or exercise the power to use the remote. My 17-year-old daughter, Deepti is hooked to it.” Defending her viewing, Deepti says that ever since “Rakhee Ka Insaaf” got aired, “we, girls are facing a tough time in school. Boys are ganging up, imitating scenes from “Rakhee Ka Insaaf” and teasing us in the most vicious manner. If I do not watch the programme I won't even know what they are teasing us for. ”

Echoing similar concerns, Geeta, a 30-year-old homemaker from Dilshad Garden, Delhi, added that, “I feel extremely uncomfortable even watching the programmes alone.”

But is it enough to point fingers at “Rakhee”, “Dolly” and “Pamela”? Such critics react to the packaging of the programme, protest about the clothes the inmates choose to wear and decide that, given the body language and more critically the-free-for-all expletives that are used, it should be slotted as adult viewing and pushed to the late night slot. Not a word about the channel honchos and business leaders who decide to imitate a ready-to-handover format and of course select the most “provocative” anchor and equally no-holds barred guests to get the TRPs rolling. It is here that we need to respond to the crisis. Not all of us are gung-ho about the market as the greatest and the one and only social leveller. In some cases, since we unanimously heave a sigh of relief that the unbridled power of the market was not allowed to take its course and possibly wreak havoc in the lives of ordinary people, isn't it time to pause and ponder on some of the core issues?

Is it not time for the channels to take the responsibility of exercising self-regulation. Surely creating a watershed timing for adult programming or putting out a parental guidance advisory to discourage children from viewing such programmes is the very least that channels can do or possibly have to do given the mood of the nation. Opinion makers, celebrities and social activists have all welcomed the move of the government. Today the issue is not about creative freedom but about the steep decline in all ethical and aesthetic standards.