(Published in Sify.com on 17th December, 2010, retrieved from http://www.sify.com/news/reality-shows-whom-are-we-kidding-news-national-kmrpyRjhacc.html)
“I’m very disappointed.”
“There was absolutely no shruthi.”
“Please don’t take this the wrong way. But if you can’t sing, don’t come here. You’re causing trouble for yourself, trouble for us, and trouble for the viewers. Thanks.”
A child gapes at the judges. The television channel dutifully plays mournful music as the camera focuses on the face of the mother of the child, sitting in the audience and crying. Taking a cue from her, the child, microphone still in hand, begins to tremble and sob as the music rises to a melodramatic crescendo.
As channels vie for TRPs, and reality shows feed off voyeuristic inclination, the concepts involved grow more daring and the prizes more enticing.
I remember a time when the prize winner of a televised singing contest would get a memento and a singing contract. But now, the bounty includes houses and cash up to fifty lakh rupees, in addition to a contract.
Children in middle-school are being offered a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity’ to become professionals. Sadly, no one reads the fine print – that out of a hundred contestants, ninety-nine will leave heartbroken. And the winner will lose his or her childhood.
Many of the young contestants may be so scarred by the stinging criticism they are exposed to at an impressionable age, that they might stop pursuing the art they believed they excelled at.
The risk of this has increased with a change in the demeanour of the judges. The traditional formula of good cop, bad cop and lawyer seems to have been replaced by a possibly more exciting one – a harsh bench.
American Idol began with Simon-who-found-everything-absolutely-horrible, Paula-who-would-applaud-everything-and-take-on-Simon, and Randy-the-nice-guy-who-would-say-you-could-have-been-better.
But tune in to a vernacular channel, and you’ll find three judges shaking their heads sorrowfully as the contestant trails off.
Why are we turning our children into miniature adults? Are their parents vicariously sampling the limelight they themselves may have been denied? Or do we believe this is truly what children want – the chance to showcase their talents as early as they can?
In April 2010, the Andhra Pradesh State Human Rights Commission warned that it would stop shows that violated children’s rights, such as reality dance shows, after an NGO complained that the dance sequences were ‘obscene’ and ‘vulgar’.
However, the parents of contestants went up in arms, claiming the allegation was false.
But you could flip through television channels on any afternoon, and find children re-enacting film song sequences in which the male and female lead woo each other. The costumes are usually smaller versions of the skimpy clothes the heroine wears in the original, and the dance steps ape the suggestive ones that get the ten-rupee-seats whistling in theatres.
Outside India, the genre of reality shows featuring children has gone a step beyond talent hunts. UK-based Channel 4 telecast a four-part series Boys and Girls Alone, dubbed ‘Kid Brother’ by the media, in 2009. The show featured ten eight-to-twelve-year-olds of each sex, who would live in two villages, about half a mile apart. The show allows the parents to watch from the sidelines, and decide whether to intervene.
The fortnight saw the children being picked on, fighting over money, planning a coup, hunting animals and living with the opposite sex. Two pre-pubescent children managed to fall in ‘love’, and trick everyone else into believing they were ‘just friends’.
Parents interpreted fights as leading to a resolution, where their offspring learnt to “respect each other’s feelings and listen to those”. But the channel received nearly two hundred complaints from viewers about the nature of the content.
How long before an Indian channel picks up that idea, and preys on the children’s ability to draw viewership, in a country where child rights are barely recognised?
One wonders how many degrees separate these shows from child pornography. Are the viewers of these shows much less perverse? And what can one say of the parents who protest against a ban on shows that violate child rights?
At a time one of the biggest pop sensations on the planet is sixteen-year-old Justin Bieber, it often seems that youth is a component in the measure of one’s success. But how many child stars do we know of who don’t rue the fact that they didn’t live a normal life?
Before putting our children in front of cameras, perhaps we should ask ourselves whether a shot at fame is worth the risk of a lifetime of low self-esteem.