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From ‘idiot box’ to national painkiller

/ 08:21 PM November 04, 2012

There is little argument about what has become of Philippine commercial television. What was branded “idiot box” has evolved into what could now be labeled “national anesthesia.” Entertainment, for all its worth, has become a most effective sedative or painkiller for the masa.

Creative and marketing geniuses of the broadcast industry explore every conceivable means to make daily life seem bearable through exercises in escapism, hyping up the potency of hope and glorifying suffering vis-à-vis rewards in the afterlife.

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But of course that is all to serve an important purpose that has nothing to do with humanitarian causes: It is to promote the network’s mission/vision, as well as its programs.

To quote a network executive: “When people come home at night, they are exhausted and do not want to think. They’ve dealt with enough problems at work, so would they want to see more? Television is the only relief in their dull, strife-riddled lives. They want only things that are pleasing to their eyes and soothing to their nerves. So you offer them programs that will not tax their brains. You can show them, perhaps, that others suffer more than they do but get rewarded with incredible fortune in the end. In short, you assure viewers; you don’t make them feel worse.”

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The result of this operating philosophy is very evident in the landscape of commercial broadcasting. Programs have become… well, more of the same. Programming grids are tailored to fit standard templates, regardless of what channel you favor on a daily basis.

Like so: High-energy noontime shows lead to the first leg of telenovelas in the afternoon, followed by early evening news… and then a longer stretch of telenovelas, finally ending with the late night news. The rest of the fare is telecast within whatever time is left till the National Anthem is played, ushering in the color bars.

Predictable

As if this predictability wasn’t enough, weekday soap operas must likewise carry the network’s signature. The style and content of telenovelas are virtual thumbprints of the identity established and marketed by the stations as they slug it out with rivals for a bigger share of the same audience.

If televiewers are assumed to be zombies who gravitate to the TV sets armed with clickers, then it’s easier to understand why commercial TV has become what it is.

Competition is much stiffer now, considering the size of the proverbial economic pie. There is only so much advertising money, measured against growing production costs, that risk-taking has become tantamount to kamikaze. Innovation has become too big a gamble. So ideas are recycled, regurgitated and repackaged to appear new, spotlighting reshuffled stars of various degrees of illumination to imply significance in the supposedly new, earth-shaking, trend-setting production.

But after the pilot episode, we realize that the idea is just, again, more of the same. Soap operas stick to exhausted but guaranteed-as-effective paint-by-number plots. Big, dark secrets, mistaken identities, lost children and inevitable bouts of transitory amnesia are found in every other story line.

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Comedy—the truly intelligent kind—has become extinct. Nowadays, humor in television is relegated to the same old slapstick that has been around since TV shows were in black and white; or to comedy-bar humor, where mocking or insulting somebody is passed off as wit.

Musical shows have also become predictable with the customary Sunday lunchtime “family reunions”: Stars under contract or wanting to sign up with a TV network gather, often to subject viewers to sensory assaults via pyrotechnics, really loud music, ineptly rendered songs, over-the-top costumes, and their limitless capacities to look cute, many times illustrating an absence of verifiable talent.

Creative decisions

Yes, we do wonder why nontalents are given airtime at all—but then, who are we to judge? The bosses must know what they are doing; they can flash billion-peso profit sheets to prove success.

However, this could be because a big portion of creative decisions are the work of statisticians, market analysts and focus group fanatics who treat the creation of shows, from inception to production, as no different from branding and selling, say, hair care products!

Yet, despite all these reasons to stick to cable or plug on a DVD player to justify the purchase of that flat-screen TV at home, there remain a few incentives for viewers to turn on their sets. Thank heavens, there are still shows out there that do not subject brain cells to virtual pan-frying.

These shows are in the networks’ news channels, which may not have the popular support of the masa base and whose single-digit ratings may not even register on the commercial radar.

These are the shows that have braved years of  programming deterioration, the result of compromises to make shows sell, sell and sell, not only to the public but more so to advertisers.

A good number of shows on news channels validate the existence of the commercial networks. Without the news channels, free TV seems devoid of a sense of responsibility to enlighten and not merely entertain, to educate and not merely amuse. To think that these news programs and special features are not expected to generate income because they are automatically deemed as too intellectual for Aling Tacing to appreciate, or even comprehend.

But it is through the persistence of shows that anchor their credibility in personalities beyond the periphery of show-biz gossip that TV still serves a worthwhile purpose. Personalities like Jessica Soho, Ces Drilon, Mike Enriquez, Pia Hontiveros, Luchi Cruz-Valdes, Linda Jumilla and veterans like Tina Monzon-Palma—or even the iconoclastic Lourd de Veyra—remind us that news and current affairs should be more than just a bunch of dudes in suits or ladies wearing pearls, reading from a Teleprompter.

There is no book that says the analysis of important facts or the study of significant political, social or even popular personalities cannot be entertaining. Efforts along this line should be given more credit so that they may be made more accessible to a larger audience.

The risks taken by news and current affairs people go beyond being mobbed by fans in a mall or being subjected to an emotional grinder to push a dramatic scene to new heights. For the record, these people risk their very lives, and venture into places where others dare not wander.

If only for that, shows like, for instance, “Drilon’s Pipol” (ANC), should be supported, not only because of its sense of commitment, but for the manner in which personalities are humanized without being trivialized and analyzed in the context of a given point of evolving history.

For instance, the tribute to Jesse Robredo after the good secretary’s untimely death was rendered with great care, not deifying the man,  but celebrating him for what he was best at—being a public servant committed to serving the common people.

Just as interesting were “Pipol” episodes featuring the sons of former Presidents who are now senators: Jinggoy Estrada and Bongbong Marcos. These episodes analyzed the phenomenon of sons inheriting the burden of history as well as family legacy.

It is possible to turn television into a stimulus, even an agent for active change. By the same token, it is possible to have good shows, not only on news channels but on the mainstream channels as well. It is important to make the audience think… instead of making them believe that staying in a state of numbness or nonaction doesn’t prevent them from having better lives. Because it does.

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