Commentary — By Melinda Quintos De Jesus
The controversy hounding the television show Willing Willie does not begin and end with the boy, Janjan, and his tearful macho dancing. If we focused only on the episode, we would miss the lesson we need to learn about media and its role in society.
The courts are now in the picture, and there are few quicker ways to quash discussion and debate in this country. TV5’s president and CEO announced that the company will file libel cases against critics of the network and the show’s host, Willie Revillame. The parents of the boy sued the psychologist who reportedly stated that his dancing on the show resulted in his abuse. I doubt whether the courts can put an end to the contradictory claims about child abuse, but the decision on this would not necessarily resolve the larger questions.
Whatever moves to silence criticism, the public should not shirk from grappling with the profoundly difficult problem that Philippine television has become, nor from continuing the public exchange which could help us all to review how television shapes our public sphere — that realm in time or space which serves metaphorically as the public square, the plaza if you will, where we have traditionally taken our shared concerns so we can talk about it, hearing out the arguments and counter arguments about what we are to do when confronted with difficult issues affecting all.
But this show is entertainment. It does not fall under journalistic review. It does not take up public issues. It is about having fun and getting free money.
The questions raised have to do with the role that television plays in society. And television combines both journalism and entertainment in the same medium, albeit in separate segments. Unfortunately, what happens in one part of the programmatic spectrum affects all other aspects with total impact.
Television in countries where commercial advertising determines what stays on the air has muddled the line between entertainment and news and public affairs. The result is a public sphere where it is difficult to have coherent conversation.
There are harsh critics who have early on charged television with the decline of intelligence. These refer to the wasteland created by mass media where the lowlife can be king or queen. Mass media cater to that audience at the bottom of the pyramid. Its offerings are designed for popular appeal, but in effect target the least common denominator. It is like feeding one kind of food, the easiest to digest, yes, baby food, to adults with teeth.
If we had all been more alive to our responsibilities as an audience then we would have noticed the wholesale surrender of the public sphere to the so-called demands of the mass audience — so-called, because really, no one in the mass audience actually demands anything from television. Often, it is just that box that is turned on mindlessly, operating on autopilot to provide sights and sounds to fill vacuum and emptiness.
Only a few will ever take the time to question what is being offered. Those who have better ways of spending their time, tune out. Those who have nothing better to do, keep it on, to be engaged, perhaps, or entertained momentarily.
In this country, television is free. Media rely on advertising. Except for cable channels, network television needs those commercials. We surrendered network programming to the executives who watch the bottom line and to advertisers who want to sell their products to as many who will tune in. We have not had too many critics point to the weaknesses and lapses, the sameness and lack of alternatives in television programming, in a time when television has grown so much that it has become the main source of news and information in this country.
It has taken this shameful incident to stir the public to react.
Angry criticism rocked the public square in cyberspace, with so many people deeply offended by the sight of a young boy, barely 10, miming sexual moves.
The audience applauded on cue, the relative was overjoyed at being called onstage, getting to hug a celebrity host for a quick 3,000 pesos, and then to take home more cash for the boy’s performance. Government and religious officials, artists, experts, and civil society leaders have voiced what has been a long-standing disgust over not just this show but also the general model of many daytime shows, the banality of which has long been accepted as a standard for winning mass audiences.
TV Times, a weekly television magazine, which I edited in the seventies, featured critical articles to accompany the guides for TV programs and the notes of the week’s highlights.
Even then, we noted how the dynamic medium was set back by the dependence on advertising revenues and the insistence of advertisers on the sole criterion, ratings.
Ratings measured the viewers of the program, and the monitoring of these audiences has become a thriving separate industry.
The dependence on this measurement, above all else, has kept programming fixed on the level presumed to appeal to the many. With no other objective than to get as many people registered for viewership, television programming necessarily declines.
Unless networks and advertisers themselves decide to provide an alternative, to provide as in a diet, a better menu, this state of affairs will remain.
All the other questions about the abuse of the child and his rights may be resolved. But it will not address the central question: How badly or how low do we allow television to take the mass audience?
We know now how low things can get. WW, like its predecessor in ABS-CBN, Wowowee, succeeded in the ratings because it was giving away money, not as a prize for winning a game or talent show, but just by being there, for doing nothing. A few are asked to enter into whatever silly activities have been cooked up for the day.
It started with expat workers and foreign guests giving money to members of the audience on camera, all from good intention of sharing their largesse with the poor.
The show packaged the doling out of money with the host now giving away what the audience presumes as his money.
And the audience continued to grow. In a poor country, getting into the show is a chance at winning daily lotto. Advertising followed him and the insulting concept from one channel to another. How dumb can that be?
The “dumbing down” of network television audiences goes on even in the non-entertainment programs. News shows no longer have one segment for news about entertainment and show business. These splice entertainment fillers into a news program, like a clubhouse sandwich. News production has taken on the zing and punch of shows designed more to keep children’s attention.
A critic of television news coined the word “info-tainment,” describing how the news product also had to be entertaining.
The spectrum of TV offerings demonstrates the media dynamics which employs factors involved in popular appeal (pretty faces, attractive sets, zingers) which also affects the choice of how much and what kind of news and information gets into the program. The stream of sound, images, words, and gestures all contribute to the making of news as entertainment and entertainment as news.
Channel 5, in an attempt to lead WW’s audience for their news show, placed the news program at an earlier slot, a move to cut down the news audience of other channels. But the effect could be a general reduction of the news audience. Another huge dumbing down.
Television, more than any other media, determines the character of our public forums and the level of engagement in the public square. We draw from television an understanding of ourselves, our aspirations, our desires and preferences, our ideas and insights — or the lack of these. There was a time when the word press referred to all media, because at its earliest history, all publications were about ideas. In the progressive cycle of everything that matters, we could have also tried to inform television with ideas and insights.
But this could not happen in a system that is designed mainly for business profit. And television business is big business. For television to serve the higher purpose of education and learning, of upliftment and genuinely great laughs, those engaged in television need to get their faces out of the money trough.
And since the advertisers have pronounced themselves as wanting TV quality, we should force them to continue the withdrawal of support until they have seen real improvement. In fact, we should ask them to lead the way out of this wasteland.
Mass media can be many things. The huge leaps in communication technology have not been matched with the kind of thought that such developments deserve. We move willy-nilly from one new gadget to another. This kind of thoughtlessness has brought us to this sorry state.
It is time to review our options, because we have them. Because our system prevents government from interfering with the media, the advertisers should take this cue from the public, not just to appease the critics, but to engage them in raising the standards for television for the masses.
The Constitution protects the media from government interference. Unfortunately, after some 25 years of press and media freedom, we have so very little to show for it.
It may mean that the media have not been deserving of such protection.
Melinda Quintos de Jesus is the executive director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.