The internet together with the ubiquitous smartphone has phenomenally changed the way we engage with the audio visual media. The colour television which had held the Indian audiences in thrall for several decades remains only a part, albeit still an important one, of the visual and auditory world. Social media applications and the youtube have turned passive recipients of images into active participants — active to the point of taking charge of the medium. Technology guarantees that each one of us can garner an audience if she or he so desires.
As CFAR celebrates its 20 years, it is pertinent to look back on how one of its first activities related to engagement of the audience, primarily the television viewer, with the media. By 2002, over 81 million Indian homes had television — a growth of 12 per cent since 1999. The cable boom ensured that no facet of Indian life remained untouched by the television. Pedestrian or interesting, it opened doors to new ideas, conforming at times, challenging at others the existing cultural values — a harbinger, perhaps, of things to come in the age of the internet a decade later.
CFAR was particularly interested in the impact television had on the minds of the viewer, particularly women and children as it became clear that they were the primary target of most television programming. At the same time it was necessary to explore the areas that were conspicuous by their absence, at least in the early years of the cable boom. For instance, how did television portray the concerns of the disabled people or the urban poor and their day to day travails. We needed a reality check.
Quantitative and qualitative assessments were carried out by our researchers and a Viewers Forum was formed to bring the main protagonist, the viewer front and centre of the entire exercise. This engagement converted the passive viewer, to an active, vocal and aware critic. The Forum had started in the shape of darshak manch which was formed as early as 1995. Part of Viewers’ Forum was the Basti Manch, based in the resettlement colonies across Delhi. It grew as a collective of its own and drew attention of the media to issues of the marginalised sections.
Against the background of a strong public discourse on television and its impact on rising crime in the society, CFAR undertook various analytical studies on television violence. Separate studies were carried out on representation of women in tele-serials and advertisements. Violence against women portrayed in tele-serials too was monitored and quantified. Among innumerable studies conducted by CFAR were those that focused on people living with disability. We reported on media habits of people with disability, impact of the perfect body on persons living with disabilities and other related topics. The purpose of these studies was to set benchmarks for the viewing habits of disabled people, assessing their actual engagement with fiction and advertisement and enable a comparative study of the disabled and non-disabled.
Children formed a large segment of the television viewing audience and the time they spent in front of TV sets was viewed with consternation by parents and teachers alike. In 2001, CFAR conducted a five-city study supported by UNESCO and UNICEF, on the impact of television violence on children. The study quantified the extent and nature of violence in drama serials. Interviews revealed that children had a high recall of incidents of suspense, violence and horror — the same elements that kept them hooked to the small screen. The September 11 attacks in the US and media reporting further proved this as children and adolescents obsessively followed the news on various channels.
In order to analyse media content and learn the skill of advocacy, leadership training sessions were held with members of Viewers’ Forum. The participants learnt about image deconstruction, role of law in regulating media institutions, the business and technological aspects of media and the construct of the news and current affair programmes. A special, customised training module was developed for use of individual training of the disabled to educate them on viewing techniques.
In its early years CFAR was thus able to develop a user-friendly documentation and a media research service; carry out research with a gender and development perspective; strengthen capacity of grassroots groups in media advocacy and strengthen the public role and response of consumers of mass media.