February 22, 1999
What havoc is the idiot box wreaking on young minds? Even as Doordarshan finally deliberates on withdrawing the serial Shaktimaan amidst reports that children in various parts of the country had set themselves afire in the fervent hope that it would bestir its eponymous hero to swoop down and rescue them, a host of disturbing questions have been thrown up. What is the effect, however tenuous, of television programming on audience behaviour and attitudes? Can the telecaster be held responsible for any untoward fallouts of this ever so slowly unwinding socio-cultural revolution? What and who determines what constitutes recommended viewing? Indeed, these questions go way beyond the specifics of the Shaktimaan controversy as the television set with its mindboggling menu becomes the viewer’s undisputed window on his own world.
Admittedly, there is no gainsaying that the Shaktimaan imbroglio is acutely representative of the issues involved. Playing a desi Superman with mythologicalovertones, Mukesh Khanna has been catapulted into cult status countrywide as children heed his exhortations to refrain from chewing gutka or suparis and to gulp down endless glasses of milk. The only problem is, the transfixed kids can’t quite get enough of their hero and are said to be resorting to all sorts of perilous antics to attract his attentions. For its part, Doordarshan, basing itself on an internal study, has been arguing that most of the deaths cited cannot be linked to the serial, but the very fact that its investigation verified that a girl in a Karnataka village set herself ablaze in an appeal to the TV character is damning enough — and, more significantly, is proof of the dangerous manner in which children are consuming television. And, Shaktimaan apart, what’s being beamed at them is extremely alarming. A recent study found that five leading channels over a nine-day period depicted 759 distinct acts of violence and that they routinely exceeded the internationallyacceptable limits of five to six acts per half-hour episode, with the figure going as high at 24.
But the buck doesn’t quite stop with the telecasters. Pre-telecast disclaimers about the character’s superhuman powers are all very well, it could be argued, but parents too have to take responsibility for the supervision of TV time. The little screen is now an integral part of the Indian living room and watching television still remains a family activity. Overdependence of children on television for entertainment and enlightenment and an overwhelming suspension of disbelief are problems that have to be tackled at home. Clearly, this is not as simple as it sounds, for television has effectively broken through the illiteracy barrier and an increasing number of new audiences cannot rationally absorb the fare on offer. That most of them are Doordarshan audiences should make it incumbent on the national broadcaster to accept its social responsibility and sensitise and educate audiences on this extremely powerfulmedium to prevent a repeat of the Shaktimaan tragedies.
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