When TV leads the charge

Reading Time: 5 minutes

A radical new TV format is creating phenomenal waves of change in India. TIM BLIGHT reports

Something strange is happening in India. Every Sunday morning, millions of Indians haul themselves out of bed to be told about all the things which are wrong in their country. Unpalatable though the home truths may be, Satyamev Jayate (‘Truth alone prevails’) has nonetheless garnered a massive audience and has become one of the highest rating shows on Indian television. The programme and the issues that it highlights, regularly become the highest trending topics on Twitter. Considered so important for the nation is Satyamev Jayate that it is simulcast on the national broadcaster Doordashan, as well as the commercial channel Star Plus for which it was produced. Although presented in Hindi, it is supplemented with English subtitles, and dubbed in eight regional tongues. And although it is only up to its sixth episode, it is being hailed a revolution in television, not just for India, but for television as a concept.

Television has, to date, witnessed many incarnations as a medium of entertainment, education, promotion, information and increasingly, interaction with audiences. However, most television markets are yet to capitalise on the political and social activism which has taken the social media world by storm. Attempts in the past have generally assumed one of two forms: first, as a comparatively shallow attempt to take advantage of Twitter, Facebook or YouTube’s flavour of the month, but never to lead the charge. A special Kony 2012 edition of the Seven Network’s Sunrise may be viewed as a recent example – the programme, along with celebrity twitteratti, responded to the already growing awareness of the viral ‘Stop Kony’ video. The second form of televisual social activism can be seen in programmes which raise awareness, but without the stated aim of promoting political engagement. The Oprah Winfrey Show can be categorised as a highly successful example of this – while it gained political clout for raising social awareness in recent years, it was never wholly a ‘call to arms’ in the way that Satyamev Jayate is. More than a few commentators have suggested that we are witnessing the birth of a new format of television, which acts not just to raise awareness, but as a genuine social movement.

After almost six months of hype on television, print and social media, Satyamev Jayate premiered on May 6, 2012. The first 90-minute long programme, conceived and hosted by Bollywood star Aamir Khan was a melange of facts, figures and heartbreaking interviews on the topic of female foeticide. Subsequent topics have included child sexual abuse, the practice of dowry, forced marriages and the state of India’s healthcare system. To air a nation’s dirty laundry at 11am on a Sunday morning was a huge risk, especially in a country as proud and conservative as India. Yet somehow the gamble paid off, and commentators have been left wondering why it worked, and if it could be replicated elsewhere.

Analysts have pointed to the host’s public profile as being key to the success of the show, others have cited savvy marketing. Some attribute its success to widespread support for the initiative, with political parties, celebrities and journalists alike agreeing on the programme’s worth (The term ‘Satyamev Jayate’ is also India’s national motto, so it has a particular pertinence). However, none of these can explain why millions of people continue to be confronted with these often sickening topics over their Sunday morning chai. Nor can they explain the massive public engagement with the programme and its social media platforms – the Facebook page received 233,000 ‘likes’ on the day of the premiere episode alone. Furthermore, neither the choice of host nor marketing can explain the huge political impact of the show, which each week successfully encourages viewers to send text messages to petition hotlines, and pledge money to charities, the amounts of which are then matched by the show’s sponsors. Nine days after the second episode aired, and in direct response to that episode’s ‘SMS petition’, India’s parliament passed a landmark bill to legally protect minors against sexual abuse. Perhaps people actually care?

The programme has not been without its detractors, however, who have decried its melodramatic nature (the host has teared up in every outing so far) and its ‘infotainment’ production, which sees an acoustic song reflective of the week’s topic played at the end of the episode. Journalists who have been working for years to highlight these social issues claim it’s sheer populism and have warned that it won’t solve complex problems, while others have branded it another manifestation of Teju Cole’s White Savior Industrial Complex, repackaged for middle-class Indians. Some cynics have called it a sub-genre of already-exploitative reality television. Regardless of what it represents, no-one disputes that it is creating change where it is needed, and that the victims of certain social ills are receiving more attention than ever before. And while they deny that they were motivated by money, the host, networks and sponsors are tallying up a tidy sum from it all.

So from an outsider’s point of view, all of this begs the question: can Satyamev Jayate’s success be replicated in other countries? To be sure, programmes like this are not unprecedented around the world, even in Australia. Early incarnations of This Is Your Life tended to focus on unsung heroes, Australian Story works to tell the stories which don’t make the headlines, and even Seven’s 2002 programme Undercover Angels featuring Ian Thorpe and Nine’s Domestic Blitz were feel-good reality shows. However, nothing has quite matched the mix of star power, social media, social engagement, political activism, widespread endorsement and genuine appeal that this Indian format has. Modern Australian television has become rather segregated, forcing the masses to choose between what is important and what is entertaining. Crucially, any show would require that X factor which would make people choose discussion of heavy social issues over light entertainment like The Voice.

Every country has its social issues, even if they are not as visible to the mainstream as India. Domestic violence remains a problem in Australia, as does homelessness, the mental health system and bullying. Moreover they remain problems which have the potential to unite Australians, and if given the right treatment, could stir national consciousness in the way Satyamev Jayate has done. A truly divisive issue could make or break the show’s format, and might be better left to another programme. The divisive issue of asylum seekers was highlighted last year by SBS’s excellent miniseries Go Back To Where You Came From, but ultimately it didn’t affect government policy. It’s questionable whether the core concept of Satyamev Jayate is negated when the result is debate, but the government is able to ride out the storm of public criticism occurring on the letters page of newspapers.

Finally, there exists the view that most Australians, in their middle-class bulk, are simply too politically and socially apathetic to take serious action on social issues unless they are directly being affected. It’s important to remember that the same concern was held about India’s newly-comfortable middle class when this concept was being developed: would people really choose this over the glut of tabloid news channels, game shows and soap operas which ruled the roost? All that was required was enough people to take the risk.

Article originally published on the website www.mediaspy.org

What's On