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Under scrutiny

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Media watchers and several concerned parents think Indian television is a lawless zone.

Nithya Subramanian

Rajat Sharma's India TV has stirred the debate on sting journalism yet again. After creating a storm on Zee with India's Most Wanted, Suhaib Ilyasi has been trying to revive the same audience response on India TV. In an attempted expose on the prevalence of the casting couch in the glamour industry, the episodes caught big screen villain Shakti Kapur and TV star Aman Varma literally in the act.

This has raised vital questions about how far television can go. While Illyasi and Sharma have been maintaining that this is just the tip of the iceberg and many such exposes would follow, advocacy groups are saying that the line must be drawn somewhere.

Says Akhila Sivadas, Executive Director, Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR), "There have to be some rules or norms on privacy and sting operations like this one. This has come at a time when media companies have agreed to self-regulation. There is need to show seriousness to that commitment."

She adds that while gender discrimination is an issue in Bollywood, there is also the question of media ethics surrounding sting operations. "The idea is not to defend Bollywood, but question the means used to justify the ends. While the channel aims to expose the corruption in the system, it establishes very unhealthy practises," says Akhila.

CFAR has been receiving letters of protest from across the country against the repeat telecast of the news feature. The group plans to take up the issue with the Information and Broadcasting Ministry.

Sharma, on the other hand, has been rubbishing allegations of "marketing gimmick" and claims the channel reaches over 30 million households. "So we don't need any gimmicks to get ahead of the game. People who are jealous of our success can continue to say this," he reportedly said.

Kids love family dramas

Hema Govindan, head of marketing at The Disney Channel, recently made an interesting observation. "Less than 10 per cent of children in the 4-14 age group watch kids' programmes on TV." The rest seem hooked on entertainment and music channels.

There is concern over large-scale exposure to violence portrayed in the television soaps. Media watch groups even raised this issue at a recent round table discussion on TV content.

According to a study conducted by Mudra's media division OMS, on the media habits of kids, it was found that a staggering 81 per cent of children watch TV with their parents and end up watching soaps during the 8-11 p.m. time band.

CFAR has been monitoring violence on popular Hindi and regional entertainment channels and says the portrayal of violence against women is very disturbing and worrisome. "Mothers of children in the 6-12 age group expressed concerns over problematic content, inappropriate visuals and the impact of certain images and TV narratives on children," says Akhila.

The study also found that in many serials extramarital affairs and bigamous relationships are shown as a matter of routine and, in some cases, extremely casually, giving children the impression that these are normal, acceptable or even desirable situations and expected adult behaviour. "Mothers are seeing behavioural changes and increased aggression," she adds.

These concerns once again bring to the fore the need for an independent, quasi-judicial regulator in the broadcasting sector. Developed countries such as the US and UK already have such regulators, which are known to take stringent action against those violating the norms.

In the US, for instance, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) took strong objection to Janet Jackson and her "wardrobe malfunction" episode at the Super Bowl match. In India, however, the Government has been slow to set up a regulator. Information and Broadcasting Minister Jaipal Reddy is hoping to table a Bill in the monsoon session.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated March 25, 2005)
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