Many Indians are children.
Many of them watch TV.
But if you went by TV programming alone, you would wonder where are the children?
There is not one programme exclusively for children on prime-time television. In fact, in a country of avid television watchers, many of them children, there are only a handful of programmes for children - in an entire week across all the channels - Disney Hour, Shaktimaan, Anupam Uncle, Family No.1, KBC (Jr), Discovery Kids and the Nickelodeon block on Zee TV. And just one 24-hour channel dedicated to children: Cartoon Network.
Contrast this with television in the West, where an entire spectrum of programming exists - animation or cartoons, puppet shows, serials or dramas specifically targeting children, music channels for children, news, variety and game shows, adventure and magazine shows, original and comedy series.
What explains the difference in the approach?
Well, the most obvious explanation is the market. Or, to be more precise, the perception that children's programming is inherently non-profitable. "The Indian audience is family oriented, and many of the viewers are women. Advertisers therefore prefer to sponsor prime-time programming," points out Gautam Adhikari, veteran director and chairman of Sri Adhikari Brothers Television Network. Adds Pradeep Hejmadi, director, research, Turner International India, which runs the Cartoon Network Channel, "Children's television will belong to ambivalent time. Blue-chip programming, programming that makes it to prime time, must appeal to all the members of the family."
Children have also got used to the idea that there is nothing like children's programming on television. The media researcher Mira Aghi, in a study conducted in 1999, found that around 75 per cent of her sample of children mentioned programmes - crime, thrillers, comedies and family serials - that are made for adults as the ones they liked. What was more surprising was that many children did not even mention a single programme meant for children in their list of preferences. The scenario doesn't seem to have changed much since then.
And the picture is much the same with other media. In South Asia, like TV, a minuscule proportion of radio programmes, cinema, books, periodicals or newspapers are produced for children. Though precise figures are hard to come by, it has been estimated that in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, children's share of the media is less than 5 per cent.
Paradoxically, people here have come to believe that television programming for children is something that is best left to DD, struggling with mind-numbingly boring educational programming. Result? Children's TV programming does not get the life-blood of advertising revenue that makes or breaks a programme. Which in turn affects production values. Reflecting the general perception that children's programmes are not money-spinners, few production houses, spend time on training producers to create children's fare.
Yet, at another level, the explanation of the market dynamics does not hold. To put it more pithily, programming for children is one area that producers could be seriously looking at. Children's programming, or products that spin off from children's television, can be great money spinners. Abroad, the TV programme Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle spawned comic books, computer games, movies and countless commercials over radio and TV to make it a household name in Asia. The same is true with Disney.
So what is holding back Indian producers from tapping into this potential gold mine?
One answer could be the in the patterns of ownership of television sets in the country. In India, households are primarily single- television homes. And prime time in Indian households, falling between 7.00 PM and 11.00 PM, is usually family time. Dad or mum, or both, are at home after a tough day at the office. There are teenagers, and there may be grand-dad and grand-mum too. The result? Programmes that appeal to the whole family take precedence. But, as the urban middle-class moves up the ladder, multiple television sets could mean a greater demand for specific programming for children. Especially in urban areas where children are getting bored, and there is not much open space to play.
Right now, with a substantial audience of children, what happens is that children are taken into consideration, but not as the primary consumers of the medium. Yet, surprisingly, within the mainstream genre, children have their own preferences in television viewing. Talent shows, game shows, knowledge-based shows such as Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC) or Cadbury's Bournvita Quiz, and surprisingly, horror shows, to which children are attracted like a magnet.
And then, there are the multiple pressures that children are under - games, tuition classes, preparing for exams and so on. Such pressures have a tremendous effect on viewing preferences. Thus game shows or quizzes have a lot of demand given that they could give children the edge needed in crucial exams or competitions, and an edge that their parents put pressure on them to achieve. Most of the quiz-based programming on television, such as KBC, BBC Mastermind, Cadbury's Bournvita Quiz Show, ESPN's sport quiz, and the Discovery Quiz shows, have a substantial viewership among children.
Yes, but urban children. "Television programming, especially in cable and satellite television homes, is targeted at the urban and semi-urban child. Look at the characters in Disney World, Cartoon Network, and even in Shaktimaan, which does have a substantial rural audience. They are all tailored for an urban or semi-urban audience," points out Anil Wanvari, founder and chief executive officer, Indiantelevision.com. In fact, rural children may be involved in grimmer pursuits. A recent survey conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that of the 250 million working children in the world, at least 60 million are in India. On the other hand, television penetration is going up, and studies show that television has become a crucial need even in low-income rural households. Shaktimaan, for example, is quite popular among rural audiences.
A bigger problem might be the "one-size-fits-all" attitude that affects television programming for children in the country. Most children's TV programmes straddle the age range of four to 12 years. Yet, cognitive abilities vary widely in this group. While cartoons or Shaktimaan appeal to the younger lot, older children hardly have any programmes for them, and therefore tend to migrate to adult programmes. They, too, are looking for some fun.
It could be a market that is just waiting to be tapped.
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