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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2897

Tv ‘Gag’ On Poll Eve

By Tushar Charan - Syndicate Features

With the five-week long poll process for the 15th Lok Sabha poll underway, the electronic media is gnashing its teeth at the Election Commission for denying it the right to telecast poll forecasts. In the living memory of the young first-time voters, who are perhaps the most important segment of the 71 million voters in the country, it will be the first election that will take place without the electronic media pundits being able to display their self-acclaimed intuitive skills on the poll outcome.

Does that take the ‘sting’ out of the polls? ‘Yes, yes,’ say the media houses which have been unloading an all-important message for weeks, if not months: there will be another ‘hung’ parliament after the polls conclude in the mid-May. That is a forecast with which few will disagree; they had guessed it even without the help of any ‘expert’ opinion or a pre-poll survey. A question that arises is what if that likely picture changes? Will the Election Commission not have taken all the fun out by ordering a ban on pre-poll forecasts and exit-poll?

A ‘no’ would enrage the electronic media because that would mean that its role as a teaser before the polls has been undermined. It may also be said that in this country of IT wizards, a great many people are always excited about forecasts, no matter whether it comes from horoscope, tarot cards or glitzy TV channels.

Political parties, certainly many of their stalwarts, may be prone to get their horoscope prepared to know in advance how good or bad are their chances at the hustings. That is really not much fun for a wider audience because in most cases the horoscope predictions stay indoors or, at best, shared among a few. What the experts and know-alls tell on TV screen reaches a very wide audience.

The fun is spread over a vast canvas through the electronic media which surely knows how to catch the eyeballs and convert the most bland of fairs into a spicy, lick-smacking one. Uncharitable critics allege that the spice covers up for lack of intrinsic merit in the news telecast. The treatment of a TV story on a murder in a suburb is not very different from the reports on a rally of a motor-mouthed or mealy-mouthed politician. The bottom line for any TV channel is its capability to keep its audience in thrall.

‘News’ channels have reinvented themselves some time back when instead of the regular news bulletin the fare presented was about laughter and jokes. If there is an official ban on pre-poll forecasts why not think of a similar innovative way to keep the viewer glued to the sets? That is surely the main purpose of TV channels. The electronic media is all about the survival of the fittest. Without a continuous upswing in the ratings, the TRPs, how can any channel survive, especially when the media too is said to be suffering the meltdown pangs?

It should not be beyond the capabilities of our enterprising channels to think of alternative ways to retain the viewers and, if necessary, outwit officials in the manner liquor and cigarette manufactures have with the help of ‘surrogate’ advertising! To cry against the ‘gag’ order and not show any initiative to get over it will be accepting defeat, surrender by the TV channels. No?

Protests from the electronic media houses are anchored on a serious issue: the possibility of ‘misuse’ of the ‘gag’ orders. ‘Gag’ is a taboo word in a democracy. But democracy, even a messy one like India’s, tends to take a sympathetic view of paranoia.

The fear of the ‘gag’ has lately been repeated so often that it has begun to sound like crying wolf. In recent months, there have been several cases when the electronic media has been accused of over-stepping the limits of decency and restraint. When this led to demands for ‘gag’ there was stiff opposition from the media houses. They promised to take self-corrective steps before the government stepped in to do so and shut their voices.

They did what they had promised. But what happened? Only the other day, one of the channels was slapped a fine of Rs. One lakh for violating the self-regulated code, but the TV channel walked out of the voluntary body that had framed the rules for self-restraint. The walkout cane amidst all manner of accusations against a leading media house.

It may be a case of professional rivalry or some such thing and it is not easy to comment on the charges levelled by the impugned channel. But most TV viewers would have no hesitation in saying that the media house against which the channel had expressed resentment is not exactly a votary of restraint in the presentation of news and views.

For the past many years, elections in India have been described as dull with nothing much happening that could involve the voters. The slogans that sound catchy fail to arouse interest among the voters. Mind you, one can’t say there is an election fatigue in the country. Despite previous attempts by the TV channels to enliven the TV screens, the overall staid complexion of the poll scenario has not changed in the past few years.

The interest in the polls that television evoked in its early days of ‘freedom’ is no longer seen. There is not much difference in the scenario between the days when the country depended on one government-owned channel and the recent days of ‘vibrant’ independent TV channels.

The ‘old’ school of journalism is today much ridiculed for journalism of old—almost exclusively print--was indeed dull compared to the bubbling, effusive, even heart-stopping stuff the media presents today. There can be no question that the viewership for TV news has increased manifold.

But anyone who is in touch with the ‘aam’ viewer would know that the tremendous reach of channels covering news and views has not resulted in a corresponding rise in credibility. This is more true of what may be called political predictions that the channels are very fond of making almost everyday—talking about the rout of one leader, disarray in another political camp and so on so forth.

Expression of extreme views on the affairs of a political party works to improve the TRP and, luckily, the tribe of politicians who suffer from what is called the foot-in-mouth (FIM) disease is multiplying fast. That should have cheered the channels. They have a ray of hope for arresting any fall in their TRPs, thanks to the ‘diseased’ politicians.

As long as these politicians show scant respect for the ‘model code of conduct’ and similar things, the TV channels have nothing much to fear about drop in TRPs.

So, ‘take it on your chin and move on.’ The ‘gag’ order should not be allowed to stop providing the viewers all the fun that comes out through the ‘news’ and ‘views’ programmes.

- Asian Tribune -

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