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Miscellanea / Manjula Padmanabhan

Mass communication is, in every sense,
the genie of our era's magic lamp

A newly constituted association of film and video professionals called the Forum for Independent Film and Video has two compelling arguments in favour of creating a Public Broadcasting Service. But before telling you about it, a brief commercial break: Consumer products line the shelves of a supermarket, bright with brand names. One by one the brand names disappear. What remains is a collection of grey shapes. A voice the colour of cholesterol informs us that this featureless void is what the world would be reduced to if not for the miracle of advertising.

Serial V3+ One argument, to quote from FIF&V's recently published paper, A Vision for Television is that ' tax payers (paying both indirect and direct taxes), the public has helped build the entire broadcasting infrastructure. Therefore, as consumers and tax payers, we pay for television.'

The second argument is - but wait! It's time for another commercial break: In the final hours before a sister leaves home for her studies, she broods at the window while her younger brother frets. What can he do to prove the sacred fraternal love that has coated the camera's lenses with vaseline? He has only a thirty-second spot in which to make his decision, so inspiration has to be instant, just like the coffee he serves. Smiles as broad as advertising revenues wash the small screen, as the signature tune swells over a steaming cup of something dark.

In February last year, the Supreme Court in a judgment delivered by Justice B P Jeevan Reddy directed that '...broadcasting media should be under the control of the public as distinct from government..'

The initiative is clearly in the hands of concerned citizens, yet how many of us are in a position to act upon it? While you consider this question, a wee commercial break: A woman who looks as if she's been reconstituted from diesel engine spare parts welcomes her philandering husband home from a business trip. He presents her with what would have been an imported television set had he gone abroad instead of to a tryst in Goa with a mistress who looks disturbingly like a younger edition of his wife.

I can no longer recall whether the product being sold was imported television sets, ideal resorts for adultery or marital discord.

FIF&V's proposal is that India should have a public broadcasting service, along the lines that have been successful in the US, UK and Germany. They envisage a channel which is autonomous of both government and commercial interests, is accessible to a broad range of producers and provides a platform appropriate to the multi-cultural and multi-lingual entity that is India.

While we ask ourselves whether such an ideal is possible in a society as repressed as ours is reported to be, a quickie commercial: A young man wearing a shiny sweat-suit harangues the viewer while demonstrating a torture-rack masquerading as an exercise machine. His voice is so annoying that the only sane response to his message is to turn on the mute while praying that his product is a miserable failure and that he won't be able to afford any more air-time.

FIF&V suggests that the existing Prasar Bharati Corporation should consider the possibility of three streams of broadcasting, one to serve commercial interests, one for official broadcasting and one for PBS. For those who fear that such a luxury is beyond the reach of resource-deficient Third World nations, they suggest that the PBS channel be funded from a percentage of the revenues from commercial activities connected to television broadcasting, hardware and licensing.

The experience of public broadcasting in other countries has shown that such a proposal is reasonable and highly productive. But before we consider the benefits of PBS a word from the would-be sponsor: A masked, red-caped character tangles with assorted villains to save a damsel who looks like she rather enjoys distress of the leather-and-boots variety. The adventure lasts twice as long as commercials normally do, leaving the confused viewer wondering whether this is a NEW! IMPROVED! episode of the Mahabarata after all.

Once more, at the end it is not clear what the product is, batteries or motorcycles? Transvestism or sadomasochism? Perhaps we are being asked to contemplate the central mystery of life, such as our reasons for watching third-rate programmes funded by cynical and manipulative marketers.

Ideally, a PBS is not antagonistic to existing broadcasting interests. In other countries, the vitality of independent producers and film-makers has seeped across the air-waves to influence the quality of mainstream programming. Mass communication is, in every sense, the genie of our era's magic lamp. It is FIF&V's hope that they can inspire a movement that will teach ordinary citizens how to harness that genie instead of being harnessed by it.

Manjula Padmanabhan

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