REALITY shows on Malayalam television channels are proliferating at speeds that exceed the wildest imagination of media pundits. They are keeping young and old glued in front of TV sets, clutching mobile phones to send messages to boost the prospects of their favourite candidates.
As a contestant move up in the race to the top, the entire population of his or her town or village lines up behind him or her. There is then organised collective messaging to take the hometown lad or lass further up. Some contestants participating in the popular programmes now being aired have fans clubs, which try to drum up support for them through the Internet.
As candidates fall behind and are given tearful farewells in elimination rounds, even the judges choke and admirers break into sobs. Apparently the viewers identify themselves as closely with the reality show participants as with the hapless heroines of mega serials.
The winners of the shows will end up richer for the experience, expensive cars and flats being among the prizes that await them. Even if they miss the big prize, losing participants in shows that focus on singing and dancing may be able to find careers in the entertainment industry.
The main beneficiaries of reality shows are the mobile phone companies. They make money by charging customers exorbitant rates for messages endorsing reality show contestants. They share this money with the channels. Neither the mobile companies nor the channels release data regarding the number of messages received. The size of the jackpot each of them collects is, therefore, not known.
Industry sources indicate that the channels which collect the most money through reality shows are Asianet and Amrita. Asianet, which established an early lead as a pioneer in the field, attempts to strike a balance between serials and reality shows. It divides prime time between the two. Amrita appears to have decided to throw serials overboard and fill prime time with reality shows of one kind or another.
Asianet's Star Singer contest of 2007, said to be the biggest commercial success among the reality shows, has just entered the final stage. It has already started vigorous promotion of the 2008 contest in a bid to make it an even greater attraction than the 2007 one.
Reputed pop singer Usha Uthoop, playback singer MG Sreekumar and composer Sarat are the members of the jury for the 2007 show. TV columnists were highly critical of the tone and tenor of some of their comments. Asianet has responded by giving viewers an opportunity to decide whether they should be on the next jury. The viewers can, if they wish, vote out the present team out and nominate others to serve as jurors and anchors.
With four prime-time reality shows on each day, Amrita has a clear lead in terms of sheer numbers. Of the four, two are for children. Amrita claims it is the first South Indian channel to highlight children in the age group 10 to 15 years in reality shows. Whether 'catching them young' is a good principle in this area is an arguable matter, though.
Amrita provides the most variety in reality shows. It is now airing a programme titled Best Citizen Journalist, which aims at discovering journalistic talent. Thanks to the presence of Sashi Kumar, founder-president of Asianet, as the head of the professional jury, the show commands viewer respect of a high order.
Encouraged by the success of last year's show featuring housewives, Amrita is launching Vanitaratnam II this week. It has also started work on a show, grandiloquently titled the Great Indian Race. It is said to combine elements such as adventure, travel, discovery and self-exploration.
The Great Indian Race is different from other shows in that the participants will travel through other States and will be exposed to situations of a kind they have not encountered before. With this, the great Kerala rat race called reality show goes beyond the State's borders.
Mata Amritanandamayi, the inspiration and moving force behind the channel, is credited with the view that "if culture and entertainment are blended together life becomes a true celebration." While the channel is celebrating, discriminating viewers are trying to figure out what culture it is promoting.
Media critics have started speculating on life beyond reality shows. S Saradakkutty avers that reality shows may not last long. But, she warns, they will be demolished by something that is worse. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 31, 2008.