Saturday, 27 February 2010

A new approach to TV debate

Posted Monday, Mar 01 10:30:22, 2010 on the Hoot

The public information scene in Andhra Pradesh in these days of big expansion of media in the private sector could be a copybook example of what Habermas considered the ‘structural transformation of the bourgeois public sphere’. In this transformation brought about by corporate media, instead of being shaped from critical rational debate and reflection, public opinion has become the manufactured opinion of polls and media experts. According to Habermas, the link between the debate in public sphere and people’s participation in the political process is broken, making the citizen a spectator/consumer of politically manipulated news and entertainment.
However, on a reverse trend, while all of us addicted to the English news channels were plumbing the depths of the earth-shattering controversies like the one around the release of MY NAME IS KHAN, a quiet but significant change in strategy was being tried out by a relatively new Telugu news channel, HMTV.
The demand for a separate state for Telangana is one of the biggest issues to hit media headlines in Andhra Pradesh since the demise of YS Rajasekhar Reddy. The frenzied live coverage of events during the last two months has inspired public interest litigations against the media.
In a significant second judgment that escaped much media scrutiny, the High Court of Andhra Pradesh passed restraining orders on 10 January against several Telugu TV news channels, preventing them from showing repetitive footage of controversial acts and statements that whip up hatred between Andhra and Telangana regions ( The judge invoked Rule 6 of the Cable TV Networks Rules 1994 punishable under Section 16 of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. The judge put several Telugu news channels on notice for 6 weeks. He directed “the channels not to transmit programmes which create panic in the minds of the people of this state, programmes which are not verified properly or the speculative ones and also not to hold such debates which are of no use to the public.”
Amid all this, a new kind of programme took shape on HMTV, a 24x7 news channel. The channel first aired the programme called Andhra Pradesh Dasa, Disa on 20 December 2009 at prime time in the evening, when the issue of statehood for Telangana was at its most controversial. Each of the shows (running into its tenth edition) telecast on weekends ran for over 4 to 6 hours at a stretch. The channel received overwhelming public response and viewership, encouraging it to continue the experiment. The first edition was telecast live from Hyderabad, but the later nine shows have been from various major district centres of Andhra, Telangana and Rayalaseema areas. Each of the episodes drew intellectuals, students, community members, labour representatives and others.
The channel gives airtime to any speaker who wishes to express her/his views on the show. The central theme is the political future of Andhra Pradesh state. The show begins with the anchor introducing the theme with the latest developments, and the Chief Editor, Mr Ramachandra Murthy, setting the context and explaining the rules of engagement in the show. Each speaker is invited by the Chief Editor by name and asked to speak for a defined length of time. The speaker gets uninterrupted time. In Telangana area, a person advocating united Andhra Pradesh is given time to speak in detail first. In other regions, a person from Telangana is allowed to present the argument in support of separate state for Telangana.
At a time when opposing points of view are shouted down, whether on a TV show, at a public meeting or in our legislatures (sometimes resulting in physical assaults), the participating audience of the heavily attended shows listen intently and wait for their turn to rebut. The anchor and chief editor intervene firmly, only if any one resorts to personal attacks or digresses from the issue at hand. There is no attempt to cut short, interrupt or provide distorted summaries of the speakers. No famous last words of the anchors reasserting their own views on the issue. The show is for the viewer and without insulting the intelligence of the viewer, the whole spectrum of views is aired.
For a TV audience tired of listening to bickering politicians, wannabe intellectuals and self-important anchors who feel they are steering the fortunes of the nation, it was a revelation to hear the ordinary people’s take on the issue. The clarity of thought, articulation and confidence with which each speaker presented the ideas and the decency with which others listened helped reaffirm one’s faith in democracy. It is a lesson for our worthy legislators that the search for a solution is possible through discussion. The viewers got to know both the complexity of the issue and the historical background to it.
The show is in some senses a conventional talk show but has broken many conventions of the standard ratings-driven talk shows with much success. The show has opened the possibility for television to
• become a public access medium, providing a forum for democratic debate
• facilitate a genuine, critical rational debate even in the present media scene
• provide truly useful information and perspectives on issues of importance
• facilitate informed decision-making by citizens
The show also debunks the myth that today’s audiences have a short attention span and have no appetite for serious information. The show goes to prove that audience is thirsty for useful information that helps them understand contentious political issues. They also respect well-founded views with which they may not agree, following the Aristotelian dictum: It is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
Whatever the final outcome of the movement for separate Telangana state, the maturity of Indian democracy was demonstrated time and again on many occasions in the past few months in Telangana.
One such event that deserves mention is the Vidyarthi Garjana rally held at Osmania University on 3 January 2010. The High Court, after much hesitation, gave permission for the rally to be held from 4 pm to 6.30 pm. Only after the leaders gave written assurances the High Court allowed it. Over1,50,000 students from all over Telangana converged on Osmania campus. They were allowed in only after verifying their identity cards. The sea of students listened to speeches, shouted slogans, sang, danced and dispersed by 6.30 pm without a single untoward incident. It was an extraordinary demonstration of the democratic spirit of the educated youth in India that media forgot to celebrate because there were no clashes to report.
The Andhra Pradesh Dasa, Disa programme of HMTV provides one more cause for the celebration of the democratic spirit, as far as media scene is concerned.