Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Has our media gone celebrity-berserk ?

The Abhi-Ash wedding coverage in our media has driven the Tirupathi temple management board to review its treatment of visiting Bollywood celebrities and businessmen. They can no longer count on a walk-in darshan, special puja and extra laddu - the privileges extended to the PM, the CMs, Governors and visiting state dignitaries.

NDTV, in a prime-time news bulletin the other day, showed a video-clip of the celebrity couple, along with Amitabh Bachhan, being escorted to the sannadhi of Lord Balaji, as thousands of pilgrims in queue waited it out for their turn. Local paper in my town, Star of Mysore, ran an editorial critical of such discriminatory treatment in a place of worship. "Nobody would have grudged if distinguished persons are given preference over 'aam janata' at venues of public functions, a festival or felicitation or a lecture" wrote my friend and editorial writer Srihari, "but it was uncalled for at a place of worship, that too, at a temple that attracts devotees in unmanageable numbers every day".

A snailing queue of 30,000 devotees was brought to a standstill for some 25 minutes, as the Bollywood celebrities took their time to do puja. Lesser mortals, after hours spent in queue, don't get as much as 25 seconds with Lord Balaji before they are hustled out to the chant of 'jhargindi, jhargindi' (move on), kept up by temple security staff.

That the temple management has chosen to 'level the playing field' in the House of God must be attributed to the media coverage that otherwise evoked sharp blog comments and TV talk-show discussions. They went into the why, the why-not and the how-much of the Abhi-Ash wedding coverage; argued if the media had gone celebrity berserk or was merely being reader-responsive. All this, over a Bollywood wedding, kept firmly out-of-bounds for much of Bollywood people, party gate-crashers and the entire media. Who got invited, and which Bollywood notables were snubbed, and why, came under tabloid scrutiny. Banning the media from their social do's has been a familiar ploy with some celebrities to generate hype.

The Bachhans, however, had us all believe that they kept out the media because they wanted the wedding to be a private affair. But then was Amitabh so naïve as not to know that media perceives news as anything that someone wants to suppress? Had the Bachhans sent out invites, even if it is only to their favourite newspapers and TV channels, chances are the media would not have made such a big deal of the wedding.

Shutting them out altogether made it a challenge for the media. Hordes of reporters converged on the barred entrance of the Bachhan bungalow, hoping to pick up crumbs and to peep through cracks in the closed gate. Pathetic, it may seem to others. But in media parlance this goes under the genre of 'peep-hole' journalism. Some celebrities resort to a media ban to be able to sell exclusive rights of coverage to the highest bidder, which is termed 'cheque-book journalism'. A recent example of this was the Liz Hurley-Arun Nayar wedding in Jodhpur. The rights, it was rumored, went for $2 million. Bollywood weddings are not quite in this league yet.

"Do readers and TV viewers really care whether or not Aishwariya and Abhishek got married?", asked a blogger. I would say media doesn't care either. TV and print media were in it, to be in the reckoning in a competing environment, to promote newspaper sales, and generate ad revenue. Blogger Balaji, who reckons our media has gone bonkers, would like to see not just development journalism, but also development of journalism.

But development journalism wouldn't fetch the kind of sponsors a cricket match or celebrity wedding does. As for development of journalism, it is a matter of perspective. Journalism could be said to have developed insofar as major newspapers are now run by MBAs, who draw up marketing strategy for the media, as they would for a brand of toothpaste, soap, chips or any other product.

We live in an age where newspapers have their news columns sponsored. What we get to read is the stuff for which media can find sponsors; we see more of golf than khabadi in our sports pages. Abhi-Ash wedding was eminently 'sponsor-able'.

TV talk-shows justified celebrity coverage. We heard 'entertainment editor' of a publication billed the wedding of a major media event. In the run up to the wedding Vijay Times ran a story on Page One the thoughts of some fashion designers on how they would dress the couple. Can't get more corny than that, can you? Editor of a newspaper from Mumbai was heard saying on TV that the wedding was news that simply, couldn't be ignored.

Such has been the development of journalism. Time there was when The Times, London, ignored Marilyn Monroe's first ever visit to Britain. And its readers had no complaints. The newspaper that didn't have space for Marilyn devoted 20 inches to a feature on bulb growers. Admittedly, The Times of today wouldn't have the temerity to act this way.

At the other extreme there was Cecil King's Daily Mirror, which, at the height of the Suez crisis, published prominently on Page One a celebrity picture, with a headline screaming, 'Diana Dors Sensation'. Suez figured as token front-page item. That was an instance of media going celebrity berserk. We may not be quite there, yet. But our mainstream media is increasingly tabloid.

Where does it leave the old-fashioned reader/viewer? Someone who wanted to escape the Abhi-Ash wedding on TV said he tried switching channels, only to find the same visuals telecast everywhere. He opted for Sanskar channel and even started seeing sense in a commercial break. But then there is no escape from Amitabh, Abhi or Ash Bachhan, even during the C-break. They appear in every other advertisement.

Cross-filed in zine5 and Desicritic


guru said...

"The Times of today wouldn't have the temerity to act this way.

At the other extreme there was Cecil King's Daily Mirror, which, at the height of the Suez crisis, published prominently on Page One a celebrity picture, with a headline screaming, 'Diana Dors Sensation"

In Britain as far as newspapers are concerned, there is distinction between 'broad sheets' or 'quality papers' and 'tabloids', the 'populist' papers. For a celebrity story to appear in the former there has to be an issue-social, financial etc.. Even if the celebrity is a royal like the queen or her sons/grand sons. For example, recently the broadsheets discussed about Prince Charles son Harry who is an army officer serving in Iraq as he is expecting the orders any time. Another example was when there was expectation of William, Prince Charles's son marrying his girl friend, instead they split up abruptly. Similar distinction exists in the media such as TV and Radio.

RGMLK said...

The Times of India exists only to sell itself, and in the cheapest possible manner. The Editor of one of the supplements (no names for obvious reasons), who I have to associate with, for I'm freelancing for her, when criticised (in a VERY subtle way), about the content of the supplement, says, "yes... Its like eating only dessert without the maincourse, right? But it is meant to be a light paper..."

And the old fashioned reader/viewer is not necessarily old, today. Most of my friends totally agree that this is not what it should be like. Indeed, one of my other friends, who's also freelancing for "her", actually said,"This isn't Journalism, this is ToIism... And it sucks big time."