Thursday, 5 April 2012

Nothing To Watch

Sometimes I wonder why I work in television.  For a start, I rarely watch it.  I’ve been on it for the past two decades that is true, though appearing on television and actually sitting in front of it are two very different things.  One is to make a living while the latter is purely for pleasure or entertainment.  But the rare moments that I find myself in front of the box with a remote control in my hand, skipping through the tens of channels that are available for simultaneous consumption, I’m always surprised how rarely I feel either pleased or entertained.

On the contrary, rather than revelling in the joy of mindless escapism, I feel lost in a myriad of worlds that are alien, scary or weird, or all of them, as if I were some castaway from a planet far, far away coming face to face with civilizations whose customs and mores I cannot comprehend.  I channel surf not out of idleness or for want of a longer attention span, but because I cannot bear to witness the peculiar antics going on in front of my eyes for longer than a couple of minutes.

When I started my career, there was only one commercial TV station in this country.  Any visual offering was watchable simply for its novelty value.  Nowadays, there are eleven national terrestrial channels plus countless local ones, not to mention those carried by cables and satellites in a smorgasbord of viewing delights.   You would think there would be something that would give a modicum of comfort or delight.  And you would think that the two decades of television industry have given TV stations enough skills and practice to create really good programmes.

I suppose there are a couple of shows that entertain.  But since they entail skills that are hopelessly beyond mine, namely cooking and singing, they can only make my feeling of alienation more acute.  I feel like the Camus character in the novel The Stranger:  never belonging and only skimming on the surface of life with the most shallow of emotions.  On this planet everybody is so talented, whether belting out the highest octaves without ever hitting a false note, or whipping up a perfect three-course meal during an intense competition.  Moreover, these programmes are usually foreign in origin with strong financial backing and high production quality.

As to the other hundreds of programs that fill the airwaves every minute of the day, notably those of the local variety:  the ‘sinetrons’, the variety, reality and games shows, the infotainments, the dramas and the serials - trying to watch them is more painful than having my wisdom tooth out.
If the television is supposedly the audio-visual reflections of our national conscience, psyche, aspirations or just mass idiocy, then I can only wonder at the kind of conscience or aspiration those programmes are reflecting.  Perhaps none.  Perhaps it is just a manifestation of our collective idiocy.  Hence the name, the ‘idiot box.’

It probably sounds strange coming from someone who has made a career out of being in television, but in my defence, and in my little ways, I have tried not to add too much to the audio-visual pollution by creating programmes that have at least, some kind of clear and positive intention - although whether I have succeeded or not is moot.  But intention is something that is elusive in most of the stuff that I see in television these days.

If the programmes are created in order to please, inspire, inform, entertain, tickle or educate, then either my definitions of these words are totally different, or my brains have ceased to function in the same way as the rest of the society because I rarely find any of them worth my undivided attention.  If anything, confronted with the images of those heavily-made up ‘artistes’ and ‘celebs’ that populate our television screen, enacting a range of emotions, whether in serial dramas, reality shows or chat shows, that have very little reference to the real human emotions they attempt to mimic, I find myself pushed to the brink of existential angst.

Is it me, or is it the programme here that is at fault?  It cannot be the programme.  Witness the high audience rating and the back-to-back advertising that constitute half of the airtime.  Perhaps I’m not the right target for the general or mass-viewing programmes, or I’m just a hardened old cynic who’s hard to please.

But then niche channels don’t provide me much reprieve either.  Sports leave me cold as I’m devoid of testosterone.  Similarly those stations airing religious programmes showing people proselytising and preaching about the kingdom of heaven make me want to escape into the comfort of hell, if only to get away from them.  Even channels showing wild animals in their natural habitats lose their charm after a while.  After all, there are only so many times I can watch lions mate or pounce on the wildebeests in the Masai Mara.  As to those travel shows, I’ve probably seen them the same number of times that they’ve been repeated.

Ok, so I’m grousing because after a few hours in front of the TV while nursing my jetlag, I’ve yet found anything decent to watch.

Oh, except one.  It’s Nigella Lawson’s cooking programme.  It’s the only show where nobody rushes around, gets tense and competitive, shout and overact like mad people.  And it’s the only cooking show where the chef goes out shopping, cuts and chops, watches the pot simmer, all the while sipping a glass of wine.  And she really gets to tuck into her delicious meal afterwards.
Now, that’s something really worth watching.

Desi Anwar:  First published in The Jakarta Globe

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