Content Is Khan
Mainstream-ising issues needs to be the name of the media TRP game.
Thank your lucky stars that Aamir Khan isn’t a journalist. Consider what would have happened if he was one – either an editor or a reporter – and anchored a programme on television about female foeticide in India.
For starters, as any non-Barkha Dutt journo would know, getting to do an hour-long programme -part interview, part-documentary, part-show -on ‘social issues’ would require great skills in hypnotism or blackmail to get any budget beyond one of those low-budget Shekhar Gupta-style jog the bogs. And why not? Most of the news spots or news reports on TV or newspapers are desultory, even if they point the finger to things harrowing and which demand the kind of attention for which investigative journalism was invented in the first place.
Well, quite obviously Aamir’s innate powers of persuasion came in handy when, on an open invitation from Star TV India CEO Uday Shankar, he came up with the idea of Satyamev Jayate and not a much more sure-fire show such as, say, Kricket Lagaan Ishtyle or The 3 Idiots Quiz Show. The fact that he’s Aamir Khan and not Kader Khan helped undoubtedly. But let’s not get stuck at the point when we, like four tau-jis under a tree, chug on our hookah and say, “Yeah, but no one would have watched a public information-cum-documentary programme if it wasn’t for Aamir Khan as its host.” We know that.
What we need to know more, as an impressed viewer of Satyamev Jayate and an envious member of the media, is how the mechanics of Aamir’sshow can be taken advantage of, replicated if you will at various scales, and be used to bring about a new business-content model in social issues journalism. You know, the kind of stories that mainstream journalism wants to avoid partly because it doesn’t know how to present them to its viewers/readers, and partly to spite righteous folks like P Sainath who believe mainstream journalists are all whores with a drinking problem.
Essentially, in Satyamev Jayate, Aamir is the host-editor of a theme-based social documentary platform. It’s like him being a star editor of one section of a newspaperor a particular show on telly. (Director Rituporno Ghosh provides a similar and very effective role as the ‘star’ editor of the literary supplement Robbar (Sunday) of the Bengali newspaper Pratidin.) So the issue of whether his programme needs to deal at all with politics or entertainment or sports or foreign coverage doesn’t arise, because he’s the editor of one section/programme that deals with what it deals with and nothing else.
And like the way if I hosted Satyamev Jayate the show may not have quite the effect that we saw last Sunday, it would not go past its initial curiosity value if the content was shoddy and not hard-hitting and pulling at the heartstrings of Middle India. And Aamir’s programme serves the function of what a newspaper or a news channel should: provide a platform where news that’s already out there can be scaled up.
So you have two Sahara Samay journalists Meena Sharma (now the channel’s bureau chief) and Shripal Shaktawat who, in 2005, conducted an investigative story involving sting operations that meanttravelling to some 100 towns and cities and approaching 140 doctors toexpose them as willing practitioners of female foeticide. Credit goes to Sahara Samay for providing Sharma and Shaktawat the logistical go-ahead for the story. It was an exposé that should have rocked the nation out of its torpor, made the two reporters names, if not of the household variety then at least among the professional expanses of journalism.
And yet, seven years later, it takes someone from outside the caste-ridden media universe -‘a celebrity!’- to resurrect and bump up their foeticide exposé story and actually get the reaction that was originally sought from viewers and readers across the nation.
The argument that Aamir Khan is popular (and therefore powerful) and thereby able to remove the blind spot on ‘serious issues’ is as much besides the point as it is correct. I certainly believe that the power of ‘mainstream-ising’ issues is the name of the media game.
There may be smaller parties who bring a certain piece of news to light – a classic case being radio broadcasting channel DagensEko of the Swedish State Radio first airing the news of a Swedish arms and ammunition company named Bofors violating Swedish law by obtaining a contract from the Government of India after ‘bribes’ had been paid to local agents. But one of the media’s prime functions is to choose a story or an issue and run with it. Hype it, if you will.
“No one wants to see certain unpleasant bits about our society. If they see these bits, they get worked up and worried,”Aamir told the viewer in the prologue of the first episode of Satyamev Jayate last week. I’ve heard folks within the bowels of the media say exactly the same thing – without the bit that Aamir doesn’t say but simply showcases: that these unpleasant bits need to be highlighted in an engaging, attractive (in terms of presentation) way where a star billing could go a longish way in getting the crowds into the tent.
And it’s not, of course, always going to be a Satyamev Jayate. Getting Salman Khan to host a similar programme may be stupid, but more importantly, it’s as likely to work as me taking over Simi Garewal’s chair in that blindingly white show of hers.
But what will work is for media companies to realise that there’s a need to showcase ‘issues that matter’ and showcase them with quality.
The scale, the content, the subjects, the style will differ. They have to. It could be Yuvraj Singh doing a moving TV show on India’s forgotten and left-to-rot sporstmen. It could be Cyrus Broacha writing a funny boy documentary travel column on India’s places of worship. It could even be a normal journalist who writes, or is the editor of a series, or presents or anchors a quality programme on political issues that do not – I repeat DO NOT – involve talking heads in the studio. (Srinivasan Jain’s Truth vs Hype on NDTV is a news show that’s already there and needs to be bumped up for more people to know that it exists.)
I once asked a television editor why there weren’t any half-decent documentaries. The answer was quick and simple: no one wants to spend the amount of money required to have a stylish, well-produced documentaries, preferring instead low-budget programmes that cut more corners than a hexagonal dining table.
Well, having an Aamir to present a good show may open up the safe deposit box that others may not. But if you flip the picture around, what Satyamev Jayate should teach the media is that good presentation is a serious part of good journalism.
So if that means editors and journosspending a bit more time, money and space-time on presenting issues that they usually considering boring for readers and viewers (art stories can be as difficult as those on healthcare to ‘sell’), so be it. Not only will it be good journalism, but it should jolly well be good business too. Of course, this means editors and journos convincing the geniuses who hold the purse-strings that quality has a quantity – in TRPs, in readership- of its own.
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