Sunday, January 21, 2007

How real are reality TV shows?

By Anil Gulati

In an era of TRPs (Television Rating Points) and SMSs, umpteen number of reality shows are stealing the limelight. They are high on TRPs and spinning money for their producers - a factor which motivates many others to join the race.

The one getting popular now is the Indian version of international worldwide hit 'Big Brother'. Called 'Big Boss' on Sony TV, it has 13 celebrity participants, though a few of them have been 'evicted' out of the game now. The challenge is to live under constant surveillance by TV cameras and be popular among participating contestants.

But that is not enough - the ultimate is to survive the 'SMS poll'. Reality shows like these, which engage audiences, have been growing. Some that I can remember and have just finished are 'Nach Baliye 2' and 'Jhalak Dhilka Ja'. In all them the major share of voting power via SMS or telephone calls, which decided the fate of the participant, was with audience.

The format may vary like in the case of 'Big Boss' - one who gets more SMSs is evicted out of the game while in other shows the participant wins.Stakes for participants are high in these shows - be it the prize money or popularity. Similarly, the money which spins around in these shows is extremely high. Be it advertisers who peg their products on the same, the audiences that not only watch the show and gives it higher TRPs, but also the audience that votes by SMS or telephone calls. Worth referring here would be an article on some time back (February 2006). The article talked about the money these SMSs provide to the channel and mobile operator. On an average, a popular reality television show gets about 7 million cell phone text messages each episode.At Rs.4 per SMS, it adds up to Rs.28 million per episode. Over a year (52 weeks), that is an astounding Rs.1,460 million. On a 50-50 split between the channel and the mobile operator, it works out to Rs.730 million to the channel. Just one medium (SMS) on one reality show of 52 weeks can give you this much.

Despite these high stakes, many of them show so-called reality but doesn't look 100 percent real - they lack total transparency. Hardly any of these reality shows reveal the exact number of votes the winner or loser gets - something which all of us may like to know.

There have been times when one may question the decisions, but with no answer. Shows like these would look more real if there is more transparency and they reveal the exact numbers of SMSs received (not the percentage) and the system followed thereafter.I am not raising any doubts on the decision or making any allegations but am trying to make a point that the audience in this case, which spends the money, has all the right to know. For that matter, the participants who lose or win and advertisers who peg their products on these shows have an equal right to know.

Interestingly, the recent controversy on 'Big Brother', being telecast on Channel 4 in Britain, has made it more popular there. Similarly in India too, controversies and celebrities in the show make them more or less popular. More the controversies, more people get engrossed, reaping double benefit not only with higher TRPs but higher number of SMSs and more cash! In the case of 'Bigg Boss', a celebrity was brought back via a wild card entry but ... was it based on the channel's own business calculations that the celebrity could help bring higher TRPs or by votes of people? Nobody actually knows and numbers were not shared on the show.

One explanation could be that anyone who helps in increasing TRPs will also get higher number of SMSs, but that may be an assumption. Viewers tend to get attached to many of these shows and emotions are raised. Entertainment is there but viewers also spend their money to vote for them and are motivated to do so. One may be using the emotions of viewers for the business advantage of channels and in the process, the viewer does not even know the reality. Reality - as made to be perceived - may or may not be real. Media reports have also raised allegations, though very few, of contestants using their networks or providing SIM cards to vote for a particular person.

Ultimately, the TV channels are in an entertainment business venture and not social ventures, but do impact social structures. An element of transparency needs to be built into these reality shows, especially since it impacts the lives of people, engage them emotionally and use their money. It may be there but needs to be shared transparently with people.

(Anil Gulati is a resident of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. He can be contacted at
Copyright Indo-Asian News Service

No comments: