The recent uproar on the controversial new show Pehredaar Piya Ki led me to both watch many episodes of the serial and also read many posts of outrage against it. I watched 19 episodes of Pehredaar Piya Ki and had to conclude it is beautifully confused at best. However much you would like to keep an open mind, it is decidedly bizarre to watch a kid arranging aarti and grahapravesh for his “wife” and I am glad it’s off air for many reasons. However, what struck me as curious was the main argument of the various posts protesting PPK, namely, that it was airing at 8.30pm, the family viewing time, thereby corrupting the minds of susceptible children.
My dear Indian family, pray tell me, what is “family viewing time?” TV channels call this the prime time slot - from 7 or 8pm up to 10.30pm when they get maximum eyeballs. This is also being expanded to rev up the ratings from 6pm onwards as “early primetime.” And you, dear family, euphemistically call it the family viewing time.
In an article for LiveMint, Partho Dasgupta, the head of BARC, the agency that basically measures who watches which channel and how much - wrote:
“TV is the mass medium of choice for a country like India. It is watched by the rich and poor, by the daily office-goer as well as farmers across rural India. It offers enough choice for a young country, ensuring growth as a medium which binds the family together and remains the first screen of choice.”
The indispensable glue that sticks the Indian family together? So what everyone who protested against PPK was saying basically was, our children are watching the soaps with us at 8.30 pm, we don't want them to watch something like PPK. Bravo! It takes a nine year old child applying sindoor on an 18 year old woman to rouse our collective conscience.
But this is only a partial realization. We can - and must - do better!
ChildSafeMedia works to educate parents and children about wiser use of media and technology. We run media awareness workshops in schools and with parents and children. One of the things we observe is what I like to call “content creep”. What this means is that over a period of time, our personal standards for what is acceptable content keeps getting lowered, because we are all benchmarking against a common minimum. Let me explain.
In marketing, when companies want to make a change to a major brand, they don't risk doing it in one big leap. Instead, they make one small change at a time, called the “just noticeable difference.” It is big enough for the consumer to notice but not so big to alienate her. After some time, the next change is made. Again, the consumer notices but it isn't too big a change so she accepts it. Repeat till the brand gets to the new level required, and suddenly, you have something that is far removed from what you originally had but which is perceived by the consumer as the same brand.
The popular story of the frog in hot water explains it perfectly. When a frog is in hot water, it jumps right out. But put a frog in cold water and slowly increase the temperature - it keeps getting used to the new temperature, till it gets killed. (Disclaimer: I have never checked this theory!).
Thus it is with television (and indeed, most of what passes for popular entertainment today). We all lament that the shows of the good old days are no more. But the quality of content we have today, did not happen overnight. It happened one show at a time, one compromised viewer at a time. We have lowered our standards bit by bit, overlooked every instance we squirmed while watching a TV show, to the point where it takes an extreme show like PPK to shake us up.
So my theory of content creep just got visible proof: The public outrage against PPK only reinforces our collective, resigned acceptance of its peers - that are far worse but couched in acceptable and familiar themes.
A quick audit of these shows will prove my point.
Let's look at the 8.30 pm slot:
On Star, we have Chandra Nandini. I had hopes that it would be a wholesome history lesson for kids. Turned out, the first part establishing Chandra as Chandragupta Maurya was more violent than the average B grade Bollywood movie. Sample: Chandra slashes the heads of Nanda’s seven sons in one stroke. Blood and gore. Next, the show turned into a complex love-hate saga between Chandra and Nandini - which isn't even historically accurate to begin with. Most of the show is the scheming of the Grecian queen and her mother to oust Nandini from the kingdom and from Chandra’s favour. In between royal conspiracy, physical chemistry and managing three wives, it’s a surprise the Mauryan empire got established at all.
On Colors, the supposedly progressive Udaan, with the theme of the emancipated slave laborer is actually a complex love story with pregnant sister, bride-switching, marrying the wrong people and so on that is now running a track of double-crossed love, murder, guns, goons and intrigue. Essentially, girls fighting for the same man.
On Zee, there is Piya Albela, that is supposedly an adaptation of the story of Vishwamitra-Menaka. The show features the standard formula of scheming relatives, an innocent male protagonist, the all-sacrificing female protagonist and surprise surprise, a female friend who is turning into the vamp.
Let’s look at the 9 pm slot:
On Star, we have Naamkarann. Inspired by the Hindi movie Zakhm, it was pitched as a story of a progressive single mom raising a smart daughter. Replete with scheming mother who refuses to accept her unwed daughter-in-law and finally murders her, in order to raise her grandson without knowledge of his mother (yes, the head spins!). With a 15 year jump, we now have the grown-up daughter back to have her revenge amidst many steamy scenes of new love interests.
On Zee TV, we have Kumkum Bhagya (which also has a spinoff, Kundali Bhagya). Kumkum Bhagya is supposedly a passionate love story, with many twists and turns, including a sister, a friend and an ex-girlfriend plotting to separate a brother and his wife complete with false paternity DNA tests, memory loss and murder. Crux: Many beautiful women fighting for the rich and handsome man. It runs on regional TV as Iru Malargal in Zee Tamil, and Kumkuma Bhagyam in Zee Telugu.
We could go on, but I will end with this sampling. With guest appearances from famous stars, these shows are mini-Bollywood productions with cinematic plot twists and even romantic song sequences! They use intimate romantic scenes and elaborate wedding sequences to push up ratings. And to add insult to injury, they are all pitched as serials with powerful women protagonists when they are actually just rehashing the traditional woman-as-vamp cliche but in fancier sets and clothes.
And to add insult to injury, they are all pitched as serials with powerful women protagonists when they are actually just rehashing the traditional woman-as-vamp cliche but in fancier sets and clothes.
Of course, we all choose how to be entertained and to each her own. Far be it from my intention to pass a moral judgement on either makers or consumers of such shows. However, nothing justifies our children being exposed to this kind of rubbish each day. To watch such extremely negative and dramatized examples of human nature - not just once in a while in a movie hall, but everyday, in your own living room, to watch adults take sides of characters that automatically sets the seal of authority on that character’s behaviour, to normalize such negativity for children is - I will run the risk of hyperbole - nothing short of poisoning their childhood.
...to normalize such negativity for children is - I will run the risk of hyperbole - nothing short of poisoning their childhood.
If you’ve read this far, I have two things to ask of you:
(1) Please unsubscribe to the idea of “family viewing time” - there isn't a worse euphemism for what we should recognize as an execration.
(2) If you absolutely have to watch TV as a family, let it be safe enough and sane enough for the youngest in the family - only then can it be true family viewing.
Thank you for reading.
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