Saved by the ‘soaps’ – Asia Media Summit picks up momentum

Asia Media Summit 2007’s first day — which started with old media mandarins dismissing new media — ended on a good note, thanks to an interesting, focused session on soap operas and reality TV shows.

Is reality TV a transient fad? With media convergence and lowered barriers to mass media, what new forms and formats of programming and delivery will emerge? These were some questions posed to three panelists drawn from the India, South Africa and the UK.

The most interesting presentation, for me, came from India: Yvonne MacPherson, Project Director of BBC World Service Trust (India) — the BBC’s charitable arm — spoke about their work in India using entertainment TV formats to communicate socially relevant messages.

She shared highlights of BBC-WST’s experiences in using the long-format drama serials and reality based dramas on Indian television.

These are part of what BBC-WST website calls ‘one of the world’s biggest mass media projects to achieve HIV and AIDS awareness and prevention’.

HIV positive detective Jasoos Vijay - courtesy BBC WST Jasoos Vijay transformed Indian attitudes about HIV Haath se Haath Milaa music video wins top India TV awards

First broadcast in July 2002, ‘Jasoos Vijay’ (which means Detective Vijay) is a long-running detective serial on India television. It features Vijay — who is living with HIV — and has messaging about HIV and AIDS awareness and prevention woven in to the plot and dialogue. It not only provided basic facts and figures, but also debunked popular misconceptions about HIV.

After four years on the air, the series entered the Top Ten among Indian TV programmes in August 2006. According the industry-wide TAM audience figures, it then drew a weekly audience reach of almost 16 million viewers.

The series is filmed entirely on location. It is made in Hindi and dubbed into seven other languages. The detective serial is broadcast on peak viewing time on Sunday evening on India’s Doordarshan National channel.

“Long format drama series is the best way to attract a countrywide mass audience,” MacPherson said. “Reality show format, on the other hand, better suits urban and semi-urban audiences.”

In the latter category is BBC-WST’s celebrity and reality programme on HIV awareness, ‘Haath se Haath Milaa’, which means ‘Let’s Join Hands’. It is aimed at younger viewers in urban areas.

Both series were delivered in partnership with India’s national broadcaster, Doordarshan and the Indian National Aids Control Organisation (NACO). Whatever services that were mentioned in the programmes — whether on voluntary HIV testing or anti retroviral drugs — the creators ensured that it was already available through the official healthcare system.

Key to the success of these media initiatives was substantial volumes of research and pre-testing, MacPherson said.

Studies have highlighted how television plays such a significant role in the lifestyle and family choices in India.

She disclosed that BBC-WST is now planning to apply the same entertainment format to another social issue in India: the wide-spread practice of aborting girls after the sex of an unborn child is found out from tests.

“There have been various TV advertisements appealing viewers to love girls, but that doesn’t seem to work — because they don’t address why girls and women are devalued in society.”

Vasanthi Rao, Director of India’s Centre for Media Studies (CMS), was less enthusiastic about reality shows on Indian television. “They don’t really capture reality. It’s more a moderated reality.”

She asked about the kind of budgets that BBC-WST worked with in India, a question that Yvonne MacPherson chose to ignore. This was interesting by itself, given how BBC-WST is increasingly seen as competing for scarce development communication funds with national and local organisations in the very developing countries that it seeks to serve.

In recent years, the BBC-WST has raised millions of pounds and dollars worth grants which come from overseas aid budgets of the UK government and from charitable foundations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Notwithstanding the high degree of professionalism and creativity the Trust has brought into all its media projects in India and elsewhere, questions need to be asked on its cost-benefits ratio — and whether it distorts the market for others.

Jacky Sutton, a communications advisor with Unesco in Afghanistan, noted how soap operas can complement the media’s news agenda. “Media is not all about confronting politicians or exposing corruption. It is also about giving people the right information and more choices in their daily lives.”

She noted how UN-sponsored development films on worthy issues are just that – worthy. “They are not particularly interesting — I have made a few myself!”. She agreed that entertainment formats are the most suitable to engage the mass audience.

Dali Mpofu, Group CEO of South African Broadcasting Corporation, offered very sound advice to the so-called public service broadcasters or PSBs (a misnomer that I no longer believe in). In his own words: “The biggest mistake that PSBs is to compete with the (commercial) mainstream, trying to be more like them. Instead, we should do very well what we are mandated to do. It is the duty of PSBs to push the envelope.”

He described how SABC has taken risks: some paid off, others didn’t. That’s all part of the game.

If only other ‘public’ broadcasters of the world were as enterprising.

Asia Mediasaurus Summit 2007 now on in Kuala Lumpur?

As the Asia Media Summit 2007 started this morning at Hotel Nikko in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia, I had to kick myself hard to make sure it was not a bad dream concocted by my often over-active imagination.

The first plenary session was on ‘Era of participatory media: Rethinking mass media’. It was a response to what many of us had urged the organisers, Asia Pacific Institute for Broadcasting Development (AIBD), to do this time around: take a closer look at how the citizens’ media are evolving and impacting mainstream media.

The session had three speakers — the Director General of Deutsche Welle (DW) of Germany, Director General (international planning) of NHK Japan, and an Editor Emeritus (no less!) from The Toronto Star newspaper in Canada. (The fourth speaker, Director General of Al Jazeera Network, didn’t show up – is it because he no longer holds that job after a recent shake-up of the network’s top management? See: Pro-US coup at Al Jazeera?)

Image courtesy AIBD

The panel was chaired by Jennifer Lewis, who edits Singapore Straits Times Online, Mobile and Print offering — better known by its abbreviation STOMP. She was the only interesting speaker and, tellingly, the only speaker who had any direct experience with the new media or participatory media.

Age has something to do with it, I guess. I’m 41 years old, and I don’t consider myself a digital native. I didn’t grow up with computers and mobile phones like my 11-year-old daughter is now doing. For all my interest in the new media, I remain a digital immigrant trying to find my way in the digital world.

For sure, DW, NHK and The Toronto Star are venerable media institutions that have long served the public interest. No argument there. But why were their chiefs pontificating on the limitations of new media — especially blogs — while there was not a single new media practitioner on the panel (not counting Jennifer, who as moderator didn’t get to share her own experience)?

We sat there hearing from the worthies of the old media that bloggers have limitations of outreach, legitimacy and credibility. They grudgingly acknowledged the existence and some advantages the new media have over their own (old and tired?) media. But all of them failed to say anything new or interesting.

Some, like the emeritus Canadian editor, in fact could not understand why there was no business model in blogs. (Yes, we know it stumps the commercialised media to see so many of us working for no gains or perks of any kind!). He then ventured to make sweeping generalisations about all new media by trying to make a tenuous link between new media platforms and their use by terrorist groups. That was so off the mark that does not warrant a response. The moral is: Elderly editors must stick to what they know best.

During question time, a few audience members tried to point out the complementarity of the old and new media, but by then the tone had already been set: this is going to be yet another gathering of the now rapidly endangered mediasaurus – about whom I have talked about in this previous post.

AMS 2007’s first session showed us well and clear the great divide between the old media and new media. The panel failed miserably and completely to find any bridge across the two. It was doomed from the start because there was no representative of the new media on it.

Asia’s largest gathering of media managers and policy makers has got off to an inauspicious start.

I don’t want to spend three days of my time if this is going to be Asia Mediasaurus Summit.