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Eye Level | Channel tunnels

Entertainment news, no matter how valid, cannot dominate page one, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Dec 02, 2006 05:26 IST

No doubt you have also been part of the great Shah Rukh Khan-Kaun Banega Crorepati discussion that has swept the country over the last week. For the record, I accept some of the arguments that suggest that this extravagant experiment will not succeed.

Who Wants to be a Millionaire, KBC’s videshi parent, is on the downslide everywhere in the world. KBC itself has lost its novelty value: in its last days, the Amitabh Bachchan-hosted KBC-2 failed to recapture the glorious ratings of season one. And Shah Rukh lacks the grey-bearded gravitas of Amitabh.

Even so, I think it will work. For one, Shah Rukh is extraordinarily bright. He is the sort of man who actually knows the answers to the questions that Computerji throws up. He is also a terrific actor. Just as Amitabh recast his persona to host a game show, I am pretty sure Shah Rukh will be able to undertake a similar transformation.

But my intention this Saturday is not to discuss the merits of assorted game show hosts or to marvel at the irony of billionaire anchors promising to turn mere mortals into millionaires. My concern is with the kind of debate that KBC has engendered throughout the country. And it’s not just KBC. Jhalak Dikhla Ja created its own storm (smaller, of course, but then Mona Singh is not quite Shah Rukh Khan); the first season of Nach Baliye had the whole country talking; Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Li’l Champs was the top-rated show on Indian television when it held its final (the first time in six years that the top show was not a Star Plus programme); and now Bigg Boss has them gossiping in the trains and buses.

Most television programmers are not surprised by this trend. They recognise that reality TV is taking over. Even British TV is full of cheaply produced programmes where C-list celebrities pretend to be chefs / survive in the jungle / seduce each other on desert islands / try and be singing stars. And, of course, KBC and Jhalak... are both based on international formats that have been Indianised (and so, perhaps, is Nach Baliye, but that’s another story).

People go to the movies for drama and fictional entertainment. But when they stay at home, they prefer to watch real people (even if they are celebrities) doing real things (to the extent that jiving with a dance director can be called ‘real’). The saas-bahu serials may still dominate the top 50 but this domination is winding down and the programmes that get people talking are those that rely on real life for their excitement.

Whenever professionals in the TV business talk about the rise of reality TV, they focus on the consequences for drama. In Britain, many actors are out of work because television simply isn’t interested in making fictional shows. The reality programmes are cheaper to produce and are far more popular anyway. My guess is that the same will soon be true of India.

But callous as this sounds, I am not terribly worried about the consequences for the acting profession. I am sure that actors and actresses will find other things to do: commercials, events, product launches and even, celebrity reality shows.

My worry is about the news business. For a long time, the distinction between a news channel and an entertainment channel was that one dealt with real people and the other dealt with actors. Thus, Star News was about reality. Star Plus was about entertainment.

Now, alas, that distinction has been eroded. Reality TV means that so-called entertainment television is also about real people. When viewers watch Rakhi Sawant in the Bigg Boss house (and yes, they do; the world is not short of masochists), they are conscious this is not fiction. They think that this is reality.

But do they also think that it is news? I am not sure. My feeling is that the lines are getting increasingly blurred. If you listen to viewers talking about reality TV and about the real people who inhabit that world, there is a sense in which the events in the Bigg Boss house or the final of Jhalak are regarded with much more credibility than, say, the latest twist in Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. As far as many ordinary people are concerned, if it’s not fiction, it must be real. And if it’s real, it must be news.

Sadly, the Hindi news channels seem as confused. For many of them, Rakhi Sawant is as important as — if not more important than — Sonia Gandhi. Mika gets more coverage than Manmohan Singh. Rahul Mahajan gets far more importance than his father ever did. And no riot, tsunami or genuine news story will now get the kind of cancel-all-regular-programming treatment accorded to the Bachchan family’s visit to a temple in Varanasi.

If you watch some of the channels you begin to wonder why they bother to call themselves news channels at all. And indeed, my guess is that the next generation of channels will use such weasel words as ‘infotainment’ to describe their content — that way, they escape the 26 per cent foreign equity cap on news channels and can sell their shares to credulous foreign investors at very high prices.

Perhaps I am overstating the case. But sometimes it is hard to escape the feeling that in the Hindi TV space, at least, a new kind of programming formula is emerging. The old fiction channels will survive on game shows, talent hunts and reality extravaganzas. The news channels will cover the winners of these game shows and talent hunts and will focus ceaselessly on new developments in the reality extravaganzas. (Who will be the next to be ejected from the house! Will Rakhi offer sensuous massages to all the men? etc.)

And even when TV shifts its focus back from itself to the real world, the subjects that deserve ‘news coverage’ will be trashy and tabloidesque: is Mika a serial kisser? Why was Aishwarya in Varanasi? Does Rahul beat his wife? Is Karisma happy with her husband?

If real news is covered, the approach will mirror that of the new reality shows. Anchors will be breathless, all dispatches will be accompanied by hideously inappropriate music tracks, the most sensational angle will become the lead in every story and C-grade celebrities will pass judgment on B-grade celebrities.

I am not one of those people who believe that news must only focus on politicians. As my own career demonstrates, I am as happy writing about food as I am about the Indo-US nuclear deal. And I am just as pleased to interview Shah Rukh Khan as Sonia Gandhi.

But certain values are absolute. Everything has its own place. Entertainment news, no matter how valid, cannot dominate page one. Real news must always be covered with depth and fairness: sensation can never be a substitute for substance. And the middle-class world of television talent contests cannot blind us to the greater reality of an India where people cannot afford television sets, have no electricity anyway and where the everyday concerns are how to find enough food to survive — not whether Mona is a better dancer than Shweta.

My worry is not that the definition of news is expanding. That’s fine. The real problem is that we have forgotten how to define news.