Friend or Foe on the television Screen?

There is something that holds today´s children apart from the previous generation. At the click of a switch, they have access to a mind-boggling array of programmes on the television screen. Children in Western countries have had this kind of option for many years, but it was only the arrival of satellite television a few years back that gave us in South Asia the same kind of choice.

We are reacting to the sudden availability of satellite channels rather like kids who have been let loose in an ice-cream parlour with dozens of flavours to choose from. Until satellite television came along, in each of our countries, all we had was government-run tv, which functioned under the unimaginative control of government ministers and other politicians. Which was why there was so much excitement when it became possible to receive international programmes through dish antennas.

After the initial thrill was over, however, people began thinking about how satellite television was affecting our societies, the way we lived, what we ate, what games we played, and how we thought. Satellite television is a great thing to have, but it has to be used properly. Most importantly, many parents who themselves are not used to all that is now available at the press of a button, are allowing their offspring to watch anything and everything.

The reading habit, which is so important to develop the mind, is forgotten when there is mindless television watching. Children who are not guided by mindful elders, are likely to become addicted to television and wrongly influenced by what they see on the screen. Let us be clear about one thing: the channels that are presently being beamed to our cities and villages are mostly the product of Western television producers, based in New York, London or Hongkong.

On the one hand, it feels wonderful to have unrestrained access to a large variety of international programmes. But, on the other hand, by viewing Western programmes and only them, we are constantly being subjected to "values" which are quite alien to our societies and are escapist in nature.

Television, is only a tool. Like every tool, the use and misuse of it lies in our hands. Since satellite tv is new to all of us in South Asia, adults and young adults, it is important to understand this medium and all that it can do for us.

Television Shows

What exactly is the purpose of television programmes? What we see on the screen can be divided into five categories—Entertainment which includes serials and dramas, music, talk shows, game and variety shows; Information and education, through documentaries, discussions and programmes meant specifically to expand knowledge; News and current affairs to bring one up-to-date with events and trends; Education, ranging from shows for pre-school kids to programmes produced by open universities; and Advertising.

Entertainment. The biggest problem with the television we are watching today is that it is almost entirely made up of entertainment programmes. Take a look at the tv guide in today´s newspaper and you will see that of the 10 channels available on the satellite tv network, seven are providing only entertainment. The international satellite networks beam mainly old American serials, while the Indian channels concentrate on a mishmash of games, talk shows, hours upon hours of songs and dances from Hindi and Tamil films. Not all the entertainment we receive is trash, of course. If you look around, you will find tucked away some wonderful programmes. Take The X Files for example.

There is also a debate on how much we need to worry about the alien cultural, social and moral ethics being introduced into our South Asian societies via satellite television. While many fear that our societies will be negatively affected, there are some who believe that the fears are exaggerated. Our societies and cultures are much too strong and complex to be destroyed by watching television, they say.

In a survey carried out among Indian youngsters by the children´s magazine Target, 55.5 percent of the children polled said that satellite television was not destroying Indian culture, while 45.5 percent felt it was. Those who said "No" argued that 1) satellite television itself was also spreading Indian culture overseas, and 2) that India´s present culture was already an accumulated fusion of a number of influences, and that television was merely assisting in the process of creating a brand new culture.

Incidentally, the same magazine also posed the question whether Indians ape the West unthinkingly. An overwhelming 86 percent said "Yes": from dress codes to hair styles, heavy metal to Italian food, Indians are constantly copying the West, good, bad or ugly. One adolescent called it "mass psychological dementia", and lamented the fact that many Indians associated Western culture with progress.

Information and Education

For those who are seeking to expand their knowledge on a wide variety of subjects, from space exploration to wildlife, from medicine to transportation, satellite television today provides channels dedicated to enlightening you. You get to watch investigative reports, descriptive documentaries, and you get to travel to the highest mountains and to the depths of the sea.

It is all there. But how much of it do we watch? The fact is, few of us are able to overcome the lure of the entertainment channels to switch to educational television. So much so that we are surprised sometimes as we are surfing channels to come across a great documentary on the eradication of malaria, or how the pyramids were built by the ancient Egyptians. Like reading, one has to form the habit of watching educational programmes. After a while, you will realise that they are much more interesting than watching music videos for the umpteenth time.

The newly introduced Discovery Channel airs some wonderful programmes which inform, educate and entertain.


Unlike documentaries and educational programmes, watching which is somewhat like reading a book, news is the audio-visual equivalent of the newspaper column. Besides entertainment, it is in this sphere that satellite has brought a great change in our lives.

The news that we watch over our national stations continue largely to be dictated by governments, and hence we are sometimes asked to take in large doses of propaganda. It is, therefore, quite refreshing to receive news and current affairs programmes from the BBC or CNN studios. However, this means that we are watching programmes whose content is decided for us by a news editors based in London or Atlanta. As Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans or Nepalis, we are being asked to accept news that is prepared primarily for a Western audience. Sometimes, we will find ourselves forming opinions about our own country or region based on what the Western commentator has to tell us.


Television advertising (commercials, as they are known) is there mainly to pay for the programmes that you are watching. Advertisers "buy time" between or within programmes so that they can play their commercials. Whereas advertising must always be treated with some scepticism, the South Asian audience tends to regard commercials as part of the programme, giving them quite a lot of credence. Besides, commercials are made to grab attention and advertisers spend a lot of money in their production. Sometimes, the cost of an entire small film can be poured into a commercial that is only a few seconds long.

Advertising on television is considered much more effective than newspaper or radio advertising, because moving images and sound make everything more real. Because television is a much more expensive medium to run than the press or radio, the owners of satellite channels are always on the lookout for companies with large budgets to spend on selling their products. This is why a large chunk of air time goes into advertising consumer products.

Children are especially vulnerable to advertising because they tend to believe what they are told by, say, a lady extolling the virtues of a skin conditioner. Television has been rightly accused of creating wants in children where earlier there were none.

Watching TV

It has become a tradition in many households for everyone to settle down in front of the television set every evening. It is also common to watch tv while eating dinner. Some experts are worried that family members are talking to each other less and less because everyone is too busy watching the television set. Since conversation is one of the most important traits of being human, it is worrisome that it is going out of fashion.

One way of spending quality family time together and watching tv at the same time is to choose a programme that is agreeable to all in the family. Also, if parents and kids discuss what they are watching, then rather than the tv being blamed for creating a gap, maybe it would serve as a tool for bridging the generation gap!

If used well, with full understanding of what the medium is all about, television can serve to improve the quality of our lives. It can entertain us, educate us, and inform us. On the other hand, if misused, television can act like a drug on our minds, numb it, and offer us constant escape to a world that is not our own.

Jimmy Jet and His TV Set

 by Shel Silverstein

I´ll tell you the story of Jimmy Jet—

And you know what I tell you is true.

He loved to watch his TV set

Almost as much as you.

He watched all day, he watched all night

Till he grew pale and lean.

From "The Early Show" to "The Late Late Show"

And all the shows between.

He watched till his eyes were frozen wide,

And his bottom grew into his chair.

And his chin turned into a tuning dial,

And antennae grew out of his hair.

And his brains turned into TV tubes.

And his face to a TV screen.

And two knobs saying "VERT." and "HORIZ."

Grew where his ears had been.

And he grew a plug that looked like a tail

So we plugged in little Jim.

And now instead of him watching TV

We all sit around and watch him.

 (From Where the Sidewalk Ends, courtesy HarperCollins Publishers)

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