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12 July, 2007

Television in Kerala’s life

The print media made its own contribution to the social advance that earned for Kerala quality-of-life indices comparable to those of the developed nations of the world. This social progress, arguably, was possible even without the help of the media. It is, however, doubtful if the Munnar operation, which held the State in thrall for a while and raised high hopes of a break with the past, would have been possible without the presence of the electronic media.

Kerala witnessed a proliferation of the media in the 20th century. The arrival of television intensified competition. Now there is vigorous competition not only between the print media and the electronic media but also within these media systems. In theory, competition benefits the consumer by improving quality and lowering prices. This theory does not hold good in the case of the media, at least in Kerala. Malayalam newspapers are among the costliest in the country. Since all Malayalam channels are free on air, there is no question of television viewers benefiting from price cut. Media leaders believe that flippant, low-quality programs attract more readers and viewers than serious, high-quality programs. Thus the theory of competition collapses completely.

The first private satellite channel in Malayalam, Asianet, set out with the proclaimed objective of combining information and entertainment. Although severely handicapped by shortage of capital, it was able to command the services of well-known personalities from the fields of cinema, theatre and literature. It evolved a program mix that took into account Kerala’s unique cultural milieu, enabling viewers to relate television to good cinema, good theatre and good literature. Serials were not a major item on its schedule.

Surya, the second channel, was a part of the Sun network of Tamil Nadu. Instead of replicating the Sun format, which had been a success in Tamil, Surya made its appearance with clones of all Asianet programs except one. (The exception was a media watch program, presented by Zacharia and this writer.) Bracing up to face the competitor from Tamil country, Asianet went in for a mega serial. It also decided to launch a Tamil channel.

Asianet’s strategy misfired. Its Tamil channel did not succeed. While the Sun network came to Kerala ready to compete with Asianet on terms set by it, Asianet altered the terms of competition to Surya’s advantage. The information component steadily lost ground to the entertainment component. The quality of the programs declined continuously until both channels ended up as purveyors of low-brow entertainment. Private channels that came up subsequently stayed within the Asianet-Surya framework. Doordarshan, too, found it necessary to come to terms with it. Amrita TV, after a feeble attempt to break out of it, limited its innovative skills to providing better quality entertainment within the established framework.

Malayalam satellite television, in its short history, has exposed the artistic and intellectual limitations of its leadership. When viewers grew weary of mega serials, which were stretched beyond reasonable limits merely because sponsors were available, the channels went in for still cheaper programs to bring back the deserters. They now rely heavily on imitations. Very often even the names of programs are borrowed. As in the case of early cinema, English originals generally reach Malayalam through Hindi and Tamil. The latest examples of this trend are the so-called reality shows.

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