Today in New Delhi, India
Apr 26, 2019-Friday
New Delhi
  • Humidity
  • Wind

Getting televisionary

Some twenty odd years ago, when Doordarshan was the only television channel that could be seen in the country, the impact it had was very great indeed. What happened when Ramayan and Mahabharat were telecast is now the stuff of legend.

india Updated: Mar 18, 2006 00:15 IST
Bhaskar Ghose
Bhaskar Ghose

Some twenty odd years ago, when Doordarshan was the only television channel that could be seen in the country, the impact it had was very great indeed. What happened when Ramayan and Mahabharat were telecast is now the stuff of legend. Streets emptied out and social activities were rescheduled as millions gathered around TV sets to watch, fascinated and in awe, as the two epics unfolded before them. It has been argued that this was owing to a great extent to the reverence in which both epics are held. While it is a valid point to make, it isn’t the whole story. Why did a serial like Tamas, which was shown somewhere around the same time, have almost the same effect?

Besides, apart from serials there were other instances that spoke of the immense power of the medium. One of these was what happened in 1987 in Rajasthan after the series of short films — ‘quickies’ — on family welfare had been shown for some time just before the Hindi news bulletin at 9 p.m.

I’ve recounted this in my book, Doordarshan Days, but it’s worth mentioning here. My nephew Sanjoy who had started an NGO in one of the most backward areas of the state advised me, during one of his visits to Delhi, to stop the telecasts, because the response to the quickies on planning one’s family was so great that the primary health centres were being swamped by men wanting vasectomies and other means of contraception. The state government was not able to provide facilities on the scale needed, he warned, and that would have a sharp, adverse reaction on the presently motivated men.

I must mention here that the manner in which this was recounted in my book did less than justice to the truly admirable efforts of Rami Chhabra, then media advisor to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, who conceived of, and prepared these ‘quickies’, as indeed the entire family welfare media campaign ranging from immunisation to the limiting of families. These little messages, in particular, which had a very appropriate and catchy jingle, clearly made a deep impression of viewers as Sanjoy’s comment bore out only too well. It was, in a very real sense, a crusade that Rami had launched and she did with a dedication that was total and sustained. My account of this in Doordarshan Days was less than fair to her. I can only wish that I had given a more complete account of the campaign she telecast, which accurately reflected the fantastic results it achieved.

The fact is that this campaign, carried out by one committed person, resulted in a kind of reaction that clearly was no different from the grand depiction of the epics, or such riveting serials as Tamas. It did what the bigger programmes did — capture the viewers’ attention, and not just capture their attention but motivate them to act. They went to the health clinics, which were, sadly, found wanting. Rami tells me that she had taken this up with the ministry on numerous occasions, warning them of the dangerous consequences of not backing the campaign with action on the ground. Clearly between that and the bureaucracy of the health authorities in the state taking suitable action there was a huge gap.

Can such intense viewer interest and identification with the subject happen in today’s scenario? Can a campaign, even if it spread over three or four nationally broadcast channels have the same effect? We have an example in the publicity campaign carried by several channels on the pulse polio campaign. It can’t be denied it had a very considerable effect, but it was only partial; which is partly why the effect of the immunisation campaign has been less than it should have been, or was planned to be.

One big reason for this is the multiplicity of channels. They provide viewers with a large range of choices, and consequently it can’t be assumed that a campaign, even if it spread across a number of channels, will actually reach all segments of the target audience. To do that there would have to be a gigantic effort to ensure that at a given moment on prime time all channels would show only the one promo for pulse polio (or HIV/Aids, or any other vitally important concern). And that this would be repeated over and over again every day for at least a month. In theory this is something that can be done. But in practice it would be nearly impossible to ensure. For one thing, channels have contractual obligations and, much as they would like to, may not be able to carry the promo at a specified time everyday.

But even with this major problem hampering the repetition of the kind of intense effect and reaction that the family welfare campaign had in the mid-Eighties, it is still possible to think of campaigns that can provoke a similar effect, except that there is a minefield here one has to negotiate with care. This is the trap of ‘surveys’ made on the effect of such campaigns. A number of these are, to be sure, well conceived and painstakingly carried out with a fairly high degree of accuracy, but it has to be recognised that even these are often wide off the mark. The fault is not in the surveys carried out but inherent in the system itself. Compare the results of a survey and the actual evidence of deserted streets and empty shops, restaurants and cinemas when Ramayana or Mahabharata were telecast. Compare a statistical report and the kind of report my nephew Sanjoy brought, of health clinics swamped by men eager to gain access to different means of contraception.

If one can move beyond the impressive looking decimal points of survey reports and look for other, more direct evidence, of the effects of a campaign then one can begin to devise a campaign that can be tested against such direct evidence. To take a recent example: the HT-CNN-IBN survey of the Bihar election results did not rely merely on results that were worked out on spreadsheets and analysed. For this survey I discovered they also went out into the lanes and bylanes of the state, felt the pulse of the people by just being there, and as a consequence were the only ones to get the results spot on. Their hard direct evidence is, simply, the result of the elections. The statistical data are what supported it.

How, then, does one plan a campaign which seeks an intense viewer reaction across the country? The days of monopoly telecasting are over, never to return. One needs, consequently to look at what will pull viewers in against the counter pulls of other channels. The premium of creative work has to be far far greater; creative work that is not only imaginative but uniquely so.

The temptation to copy something done by a foreign channel needs to be sternly resisted, something most channels don’t seem to be able to do. Copycat programmes, no matter how glitzy and gimmicky will always lose out in the end. And, yes, I include Kaun Banega Crorepati? Its success was not because of the formula but because of Amitabh Bachchan. Using him was a truly inspired idea, if there ever was one.

It is hard, in the final analysis, but it’s not impossible. It calls for a huge amount from those who create a campaign; if they have it in them to bring really inspired, new ideas to the table, ideas so attractive they can actually pull away viewers from other programmes being aired at the same time, it will work. The key lies in the ideas.

First Published: Mar 18, 2006 00:15 IST