Television’s New Lease of Life amidst COVID-19

The nationwide lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic has given way to an unprecedented situation that every single individual is grappling with. In such uncertain times, television’s role has become significant in keeping the population indoors. This article examines how the re-broadcast of several old television programmes from the 1980s and 1990s has given a second life to the otherwise redundant television set. This article explores the significance of the re-telecast of TV programmes like Ramayan, Mahabharata and others, beyond the political lens and demonstrates how they have challenged digital entertainment and brought back the traditional TV viewing habits. The article also goes on to suggest the way forward for both the public broadcaster Doordarshan and private broadcasters post the current crisis. 

No other medium has had a closer association with the nation than television. When the nation locked its doors to the COVID-19 pandemic, television opened its screen for the audiences. Ironically, the pandemic that has taken away many lives across the globe, has given a new lease of life to television in general and the Hindi entertainment genre in particular. Amidst the lockdown, the once redundant television set, which had no more relevance than an ornate object in our living rooms, has resurfaced in full glory. 

On 27 March, Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Prakash Javadekar, took to Twitter to announce the re-telecast of a popular yesteryear TV epic Ramayan, based on a Hindu mythological text with the same name, directed by the veteran film-maker Ramanand Sagar on the national broadcaster, Doordarshan. From 28 March, the public broadcaster telecast two episodes daily at 9am and 9pm. Soon after, he declared the broadcast of another Hindu epic Mahabharat directed by B R Chopra on DD Bharti, two episodes daily at 12 noon and 7pm. This meant more than four hours of religious entertainment for the audiences, who welcomed the decision. The broadcast that coincided with the nine-day fasting ritual known as Navaratri and the beginning of the new Hindu calendar year, added further to the religious fervour. According to the data released by Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), 51 million viewers tuned into Doordarshan to watch Ramayan, the highest ever figure for Hindi general entertainment genre since 2015 (Financial Express 2020b). As per news websites, Doordarshan registered a 650% growth in its viewership within a week and became the most-watched channel across India (India Today 2020). Many other television serials of the late 1980s and 1990s like Buniyaad, Alif Laila, Shaktiman, Chanakya, Shriman Shrimati amongst others followed suit and found airtime on Doordarshan. 

Television Mythology and the Rise of Hindutva: Then and Now

The original broadcast of the two epics Ramayan and Mahabharat during the years from 1987 to 1989 was met with immense enthusiasm from the audiences. Television scholar Arvind Rajagopal notes in his book Politics After Television: Hindu Nationalism and the Reshaping of the Public in India that public places remained empty and people huddled around a small black and white television set to watch the telecast on Sunday mornings at 9am. Events that were to take place on Sundays clearly mentioned: “To be held after Ramayana” (Rajagopal 2001:84). The popularity of Ramayan cut across caste, class and religious divides as the whole subcontinent sat in front of their television screens.

However, the telecast was also criticised for its fair share of political undertones setting the stage for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement—a movement that supported the construction of a Ram temple at the site where the Babri Masjid stood in Ayodhya. Congress party’s young leader and the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was accused of appeasing the Muslim minorities for going against the Supreme Court in the Shah Bano case (Chandar 2019). In order to counter the earlier mistake, Gandhi balanced his act to win over Hindu sentiments by first, unlocking the doors of the Ram idol placed inside Babri Masjid and second, commissioning the production of the television epic Ramayan to filmmaker Ramanand Sagar (Chandar 2019). This laid a strong foundation for the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and benefited them in terms of electoral gains (Jha 2020).

Thirty-three years later, the narrative does not seem to have changed much. With the objective of building the Ram mandir in Ayodhya, the BJP is in power with a sweeping victory in the May 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The communal divide is much sharper than it was in the 1980s and the quest to build the Ram mandir has garnered much attention. In November 2019, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the temple being built in the disputed site of Ayodhya giving an alternate 5 acres of land to the Muslims to build their mosque (India Today 2019). Moreover, in the past few months, the nation has witnessed anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests and Delhi has suffered gruesome communal riots between Hindus and Muslims just before the lockdown. The BJP could not have found a more opportune moment than this to telecast the serial Ramayan and further build the religious momentum. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has added yet another layer to the sociocultural isolation of the Muslim community as few Tablighi Jamat members attended a social event in the capital and became suspected carriers of the novel coronavirus. Thanks to social media messages, TV channels and rumour mongering, Muslims were being seen as spreaders of coronavirus and violators of social distancing. 

Rewatching Television beyond Politics 

While the unfolding of the Ramayana and the Mahabharat narratives may be seen in conjunction to their sociopolitical undertones and how they may reinstate Hindutva supremacy, the reruns of several other television serials along with the two epics need to be examined beyond the religio-political lens. For instance, what do these reruns mean for the TV audience—both old and new? How does it restructure the idea of television as it were until the last decade? How can it rebuild the image of the public broadcaster, Doordarshan? What does this mean for private television broadcasters in terms of creative ideas, production quality and business avenues? And, in the digital era, has the television been revolutionised in Indian households? 

The Indian media and entertainment industry reached 1.82 trillion in 2019 with a growth of 9% over the last year (FICCI and EY India 2020). However, like any other industry, the pandemic has severely affected the television and entertainment industry, so much so that its fissures will be felt for a long time in the future. Leaving aside the news channels, which have been functional despite the lockdown, other genres like lifestyle, entertainment and even sports have been impacted by the pandemic. For sports, in particular, all major sport events like the Olympics 2020, Indian Premier League, Euro 2020, Wimbledon, etc, have either been called off or postponed to 2021. This will have a direct impact on the viewership of audiences watching sporting tournaments, who may switch over to other genres or platforms while the sports channels rerun the previously telecast leagues and tournaments. 

The Hindi entertainment channels, especially the daily soap operas, which usually churn out episodes on a day-to-day basis, have also relied upon reruns of ongoing TV shows or excavated their archives to rebroadcast old TV shows. While the channel Star Bharat re-aired its iconic comedy shows Khichdi and Sarabhai vs Sarabhai, Zee TV also announced the re-airing of its popular shows from the 1990s Hum Paanch, The Zee Horror Show, etc (Financial Express 2020; FirstPost 2020). Until the lockdown was lifted, the launch of new shows had been put on hold and the broadcasters did not have a sufficient bank of episodes to broadcast daily. In such uncertain times, the re-telecast of old TV shows is allowing the older audiences to relive their childhood while the younger ones are being introduced to an era of popular culture they never witnessed. 

But has this rebroadcast of old classics changed the television–audience dynamic apart from the fact that it may have garnered eyeballs and generated some revenue for the broadcasters? For once, the broadcast of the two epics has challenged the concept of individualised content for young India by bringing the entire family together in front of the TV screens. For some time now, Indian audiences had distanced themselves from this traditional practice of television viewing for several reasons. While the rapid purchase of smartphones, availability of low-cost internet data and an increase in production of digital content were some of the reasons that pulled the audiences away from the TV set; regressive storylines, hyperbolic aesthetics and inane content that was being served in the garb of entertainment were reasons that pushed the audiences away. The rebroadcast of yesteryear’s TV shows has provided a breath of fresh air to the audiences, thus bringing them back to the TV set. In spite of low production quality, patchy edits and poor graphics, the audiences have preferred these shows over their contemporary counterparts. Partly due to nostalgia and partly due to strong moral narratives, television has provided the audiences an easy escape from everyday banality. 

Second, this rebroadcast has brought back the habit of appointment television viewing amongst audiences, a tradition we assumed had been taken over by binge-watching of digital content. With the telecast of Ramayan and Mahabharat, people have rescheduled their leisure hours and work hours making themselves available in front of the TV screens at four different times of the day. Surprisingly, as the BARC data suggests, the popularity of these epics is largely being driven by youngsters with 22% and 25% kids comprising the audiences for Ramayan and Mahabharata respectively (Financial Express 2020a). Thus, it is not surprising that DD Bharati entered in the top five channels’ list for the first time ever after the telecast of Mahabharat (Laghate 2020).

Although many of these older TV shows are available on over-the-top platforms or YouTube, the audiences have chosen the medium of television over others to watch them. In fact, broadcasters like Star and Colors are filling their slots by airing original shows from their streaming platforms Hotstar and Voot respectively. The internet was flooded with memes comparing the success of Doordarshan to global digital media giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime. This has reaffirmed the fact that while digital content may cater to demand on-the-go, television will remain the mainstay of family entertainment in Indian households despite the growth of the digital empire. 

Future of Indian Television post COVID-19

The lockdown that has brought the private broadcasters to their knees, paradoxically, has been a blessing in disguise for the public service broadcaster Doordarshan. Being the only TV channel available to the audiences in the early 1990s, Doordarshan enjoyed unparalleled monopoly until the emergence of cable and satellite TV channels. This lack of competition may also be seen as one of the reasons for the extraordinary response that Ramayan and Mahabharat received during the late 1980s. Ever since the inception of private satellite channels, DD has been struggling to attract viewers despite extending its network to news, sports, regional and international services. With its lacklustre programming, limited budget and direct government intervention, it was unable to come at par with any private broadcaster in the last three decades. In 2019, the union cabinet also approved a budget of 619.48 crore to revamp Doordarshan and its subsidiary services (Jha 2019). The revamp aimed at building a strong content strategy, new graphics, feedback, social media promotions and publication. The year 2020, however, had something else in store but that can probably add to the already existing blueprint for the revamp. 

The re-airing of earlier broadcasts, especially the two epics, has already brought the desired traffic to the channel. Although advertising rates are still low when compared to cable and satellite TV channels, there has been an increase in the advertisements on the channel. But nostalgia may not sell for too long. For instance, the transition from Ramayan to its sequel Uttar Ramayan has already witnessed a fall of 46% in the viewership (Exchange4media 2020). Before the old content is exhausted and the situation normalises for private broadcasters to air fresh content, Doordarshan will have to come up with a robust plan that includes a cutting-edge programming and marketing strategy. Appealing storylines that resonate with the audiences, a combination of fiction and non-fiction properties, good production quality, effective marketing and promotion plan, appropriate scheduling and social media interactivity with the audiences could be some key steps to rebuild its image as a leading national broadcaster. Shouldering its responsibility as a public service broadcaster, Doordarshan will have to seek innovative ways to infuse social messages in programming without compromising on the entertainment quotient or may as well have to invent a new genre for all we know. 

The COVID-19 situation may also have imparted important lessons to private broadcasters as well. To have sufficient bank of episodes in case a situation as this arises again is one of them. The fact that Indian families still choose television as a primary mode of entertainment while at home, shoulders them with more responsibility to create engaging content. Even the youth as an audience category, which is believed to have drifted away from television, can be brought back to the television sets provided they are given quality entertainment. The reruns of Shaktiman, Buniyaad, Office Office and Circus hint towards the idea that the Hindi general entertainment channels must look beyond the saas–bahu serials and experiment with newer genres of entertainment. Lastly, content will always remain the king. A compelling narrative will attract the audiences even though other production elements are compromised with. While the rest of the world may rejoice in the glory of digital content, television in Indian households is here to stay, at least for a few more years. Unfortunately, it took a global pandemic for us to realise the true potential of television entertainment. 

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