23/10/2015 7:51 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

How Saas-Bahu Serials, Bigg Boss Could Build Swachh Bharat, Digital India Brands

hand pointing a tv remote...
hand pointing a tv remote...

No medium is more impactful today than satellite television in reaching Indians across geographies and market segments. Hindi general entertainment channels and sports channels, especially those televising cricket matches, draw out viewers in massive numbers. In 2014, the overall revenue of the media and entertainment industry was US$17 billion. Roughly 46% of revenues were derived from television channels, with print media and films being the next largest categories. The remaining share was divvied between a plethora of digital and music media platforms. The share of revenue of television is only projected to rise over the next few years. English channels and programming may dominate conversations in pockets of urban India, but Hindi and regional entertainment channels, by far, have greater reach. No wonder then that advertising rates for these channels are sky high.

Recognising the influence of television, few firms promote social causes through advertising, most memorable being Tata Tea's Jaago Re campaign to urge youth to vote. More recent is the trend of ads issued in public interest, such as the anti-smoking ads issued by the government or the Ladke Rulate Nahi campaign by Vogue Empower. But as television moves towards recorded programming and cross-platform viewership, how can these social messages continue to reach people and shape behaviour?

"In-programming messaging cues can go a long way in shaping behaviour...Socially conscious programming shows a nuanced evolution of girls and women and offers new models of inspiration... "

There's no doubt that television programming has been influencing people -- especially women -- much before we started monitoring its impact. The much-maligned saas-bahu soaps, whose garishly bedecked women in large conjoined families seemed regressive to pockets of urban India, crept insidiously into traditional households and allowed women to define themselves, even if in a narrow sense of developing their fashion consciousness. Some years ago, "Kumkum" saris were popular across India and every unbranded store carried versions of it in different price brackets. From that small start, merchandising has gone desi. Organised retail chains often launch special clothes lines tied with specific shows and movies. It has been said that these programmes have helped women find a voice in traditional homes -- a half-step in the direction of modernity in bastions of old-fashioned thinking.

In-programming messaging cues can go a long way in shaping behaviour. The issue of the girl child has been avidly taken up by channels. Socially conscious programming shows a nuanced evolution of girls and women and offers new models of inspiration for men and women alike. Issues like child marriage, treatment of young women, remarriage have found a spot on primetime television. Impact may take time, but even beaming interwoven social messages into homes and paternalistic folds of families around the country gives a tacit voice to these ideas.

But there is scope for doing much more.

India may be on the move, but the massive challenges facing the country need simultaneous mobilisation of resources and adoption of new behaviours. Only then can every section of society move ahead with dignity and inclusion. The government has launched ambitious new initiatives to tackle these issues. What better than in-channel messaging to support the efforts of Make in India, Digital India or Swachh Bharat campaigns?

The book Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy by journalist and economist Mihir Sharma lays bare the hopes and aspirations of semi-educated youth in small town India. Whether they remain in their native milieu or led by the forces of urbanisation uproot themselves in search for economic gains, youth draw their inspiration from media cues. They want the trappings of success -- the Reebok shoes, the motorbike, the trendy clothes, the bottled vodka! They certainly don't want to do manual labour; nor would they like to be desk-bound for low pay in jobs they are barely qualified for. Their role models, then, become the hustlers and hucksters who ply the back alleys and make their living through odd jobs and petty swindles. Quick money becomes the dream, the values of effort lie forgotten. The barest spark can set alight this dry tinder of youthful aspirations at the base of society. Youth need livelihoods, and sometimes talking to -- someone to give them the positive but tough message of hard work and entrepreneurship, of risk taking and persevering through early failure, of staying on in schools and seeking education. There are others -- educated but not employable -- who apply in hordes for the few government jobs that get advertised. Youth from semi-urban and rural parts want inclusion in the new digital India. They may not know English but are savvy internet users. They may stumble in their diction, but they want to be a part of the new economy.

" What if some scenes showed [youth] working hard, struggling, talking about work or business, working on an entrepreneurial venture and attaining some success?"

The good news is that in the narrow pockets of educated youth, start-up entrepreneurs come not just from premium educational institutions. They emerge equally from small town colleges and less privileged backgrounds. These youth become role models for others, who follow in their wake -- willing to work hard and eager to attain success. But what of youth who do not have access to education and these role models?

General entertainment serials could reflect the messages of Make in India and Digital India, through very subtle in-programming. Many serials reflect the trappings of success. The clashing families and vociferous youth dress well and live well. What if some scenes showed them working hard, struggling, talking about work or business, working on an entrepreneurial venture and attaining some success? What if the dialogue carried forward this element little deeper? It would go further to deconstruct the notions of entrepreneurship and employability than management courses and journal articles, which the average youth might not read anyway.

We smile on reading the occasional news of some young girl in rural India who walks out of her wedding mandap on learning that the house she was being married into did not have a pucca toilet. It becomes a momentary wonder, and the young women exhibiting this rare daring are promptly co-opted by non-profit organisations spreading the message of sanitation. Behaviours around cleanliness and public sanitation stem from deep-seated belief systems -- that external hygiene does not affect physical health and mental well being; that the act of cleaning itself is unclean and a chore to be outsourced; and, sanitation is someone else's problem. These beliefs lie deep in citizens and institutions alike. The Swachh Bharat mission is clearly against massive public behaviour and motivation impediments.

What if Taarak Mehta and his family were shown picking up rubbish in a scene, or a mother-in-law visiting a place of worship carefully throws away her puja flowers not in some river or lake, but in a special bin? What if Kapil Sharma, who exerts more influence than any other television personality today, cracked occasional jokes or created comic segments on people who litter or defecate in public? What if a Bigg Boss contestant got nominated for eviction for lack of hygiene? Such messaging could seep in slowly and unconsciously highlight positive behaviours and discredit negative behaviours. Over time, new beliefs could shape new societal habits.

Television is a highly competitive but profitable industry. In-channel branding of products is being utilised by products and brands effectively. The medium lends itself to social messaging. Even if a small part of the CSR budget of channels could be diverted to raise the bar on in-programming branding of social causes or if advertisers supported programmes with cues derived from missions such as Make in India, Digital India or Swachh Bharat, it would deliver a huge impact for the nation.

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