Monday, 6 December 2010

Facing the Truth or Facing the Music?

Posted on Mediawhistle site on July 27 2009

Back in 2007 when the now famous/notorious show The Moment of Truth was launched by Fox network in the United States, Mike Darnell, the President of Alternative Programming at FOX is quoted by TV Week as saying, “This is going to be the talk of the town and knocked out of the park. You’re either going to love it, or think it’s the end of Western civilization.” Now we have a clone of The Moment of Truth in the form of Sach Ka Samna. Interestingly, there is an eerie similarity to public response to the show here in India with that of the US audience.

It is indicative of the universality of concerns of ordinary people who subscribe to everyday standards of morality. There appears to be a general consensus that certain sets of social relationships are inherently capable of providing social stability and therefore, desirable. And a show that targets this moral framework is a threat to stability.

What is it about such shows that gets under the skin of people? Firstly, of course, the novelty of the ‘boldness’ and the hard ball ‘honesty’ of the show. Unlike the soaps and serials on television, reality TV genre finds its primary claim to credibility from the fact that it is presenting real people in their real roles – not a constructed visual presentation to represent a fictional story.

Be that as it may, in a show like Sach Ka Samna, it is evident that the process of putting together the show itself has a significant bearing on who gets to be on the show. If it is Kaun Banega Crorepati or Sa Re Ga Ma kind of show, it is the intellectual equipment or talent of the individual that gets them on to the show.

To get to be on Sach Ka Samna, the contestant has to have a colourful personal history (real or fictional). What the ‘ordinary moral viewer’ might consider a deviant and undesirable social profile. That is only a part of the story. The contestant also has to be daring enough to bare all in public for a price with his immediate family bearing witness. The price is large enough for someone to take a shot at it (Assumption: for the right price you can get some people to do ANYTHING). The worst part of the deal is, the lie detector will decide the truth of the matter. In KBC and SRGM the viewer can assess the veracity of the judgement. The structure of SKS therefore also can compel individuals to answer to suit the perceived ratings requirements of the show (anyone who has done social surveys knows how self-reporting works). If they don’t, there is always the lie detector.

Both in The Moment of Truth and in Sach Ka Samna the questions are similar. The focus is on intensely personal issues of money, sex and relationships. With minor variations, the questions probe infidelity, adultery and emotional betrayal. And the lie detector will decide if the participant is speaking the truth.

The severe and swift negative response to the show both in US and in India is from people who believe that the show is attempting to naturalise such deviant behaviour. The viewers whose personal experience of society around them does not indicate such behaviour as widespread enough worry that the television show will project this as the norm rather than as an exception.

One may argue that worse things are being shown on films and soaps. Why such uproar only about SKS? Both soaps and films are understood to be works of fiction and are seen within that framework. The USP of reality shows is that they are ostensibly about real people and real situations. However, the audience is not consciously aware that even a reality show is a function of pre-selection of content (of contestants and what they say) and form. The lingering close ups of the wife when the husband is confessing to cheating on her are not an accident. They borrow heavily from the familiar conventions of dramatic narration on television. It is this aspect of pretended reality done up like drama that is problematic about such shows.

Those who read it like drama leave it at that. Those who read it as reality protest. Ultimately, how real is the reality show?