Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 12 Feb 2012
Question: What was gifted to Sri Lanka’s Children of ’77 in 1979, was properly unpacked three years later, and over the next three decades became an integral part of the island nation’s modern lives?
Answer: Broadcast television.
Given my close association with the medium, overseas friends find it surprising that I grew up in a household, and a neighbourhood and whole country without TV.
Well, at least until I was 13. That was when Greater Colombo started experiencing re-runs of Sesame Street, Electric Company and other imported programmes from the US and Europe. Big Bird, Ernie, Bert and friends heralded a new word for us kids – and our elders – hitherto raised on a diet of newspapers and radio. Life would never be the same again.
It was when the national TV broadcaster Rupavahini started transmissions on 15 February 1982 that the new medium became accessible islandwide. In the decade that followed, TV sets became top selling items, thanks in part to live cricket broadcasts (coincidentally, Sri Lanka started playing Test cricket the same month it commenced countrywide TV).
TV has always had more than its fair share of critics (some of who had blocked a German-backed TV project in 1968). But there is strong evidence that we have become a nation of avid TV watchers.
The TV set is the most commonly found consumer electronic item in Lankan households today. According to the Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2009/10 conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics, 80% of our households now own one. (Compare this to 75.4% for radio, 35.9% for VCD/DVD players, and 12.5% for personal computers). Full report at: www.tiny.cc/HIES910
In case you are wondering, there is no significant urban-rural disparity in how Lankans own TV sets — there are more TV sets than radios even in rural areas. The long-held notion of ‘radio being stronger in the villages’ is no longer supported by statistics.
And as market researchers and advertisers can confirm, Lankans do watch their TVs – a lot. When I worked with Survey Research Lanka Limited (SRL) on a countrywide survey of public perceptions on climate and environmental issues in 2010, we found TV was the single most popular source of information on current affairs for both urban and rural households. As many as 94% of respondents cited TV. In comparison, radio was a source for 74%, while newspapers and magazines were for 70%. Again, there was no significant urban/rural difference. Summary at: www.tiny.cc/PPSLSum
As Sir Arthur C Clarke noted in 2003: “TV rules how Sri Lankans work, dine and socialise. And when an important cricket match is being broadcast live, I have to look hard to find any signs of life on the streets of Colombo!”
Sir Arthur saw it unfold, even before Day One. His Colombo house was the first in the island to have a working TV set: in 1976, the Indian space agency gifted him a dish antenna to catch transmissions from satellites over the Indian Ocean. That was a ‘thank you’ for conceiving the geosynchronous communications satellite.
Satellite TV became a reality for the rest of us in the 1990s. By then, the state monopoly in TV had begun to crumble. Today, half a dozen state channels compete with over a dozen privately owned, free-to-air ones. If you have cable TV, a few dozen more channels are within reach.
Despite all this, many Lankans are still uneasy with the ‘idiot box’ – for different reasons. Older generations are more attached to radio. Cinema artists nurture a love-hate relationship with TV. Parents often worry TV can distract children from the all-important ‘book studies’.
Such fears are amplified by the self-appointed guardians of culture and public morals, who never tire of berating the medium, even as some hop from channel to channel as ‘TV pundits’!
Sure, TV has underperformed when it comes to serving public information and public education needs in Sri Lanka. How well it has met entertainment needs is also debatable. But there is no going back to the pre-TV days, so we might as well work on improving our TV.
Joining the debate a decade ago, Sir Arthur Clarke wrote: “Every TV programme has some education content: the cathode ray tube (and now the plasma screen!) is a window on the world; indeed, on many worlds. Often it’s a very murky window, but I’ve come to the conclusion that, on balance, even bad TV is preferable to no TV at all.”
Although we eagerly unpacked the Japanese gift of TV broadcasting 30 years ago this month, we forgot to read the instructions that came with it! If TV under-serves our community needs and interests today, that’s not the medium’s fault — but because how we have related to it.
Web use is slowly growing in Lanka, but broadcast TV will remain the dominant mass medium for at least a decade. As our first Television Generation rises in society and economy, let’s hope they will be more comfortable with the little box, and better shape its future.
As a late-comer to the medium, I’ll cheer anyone who wants to improve our TV industry and culture.