Dipped in Witriol
Has the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) finally found a solution to the programming crisis plaguing TV news channels? It claims it has. Although one can’t always go by field trials there indeed seems to be some hope on the horizon if the politicians give the green signal. To put the reader in the loop, the R&D whizz kids were roped in by the government after several channels approached it for a solution to a rather peculiar problem—very limited option when choosing personalities and pundits who can be interviewed or included in panel discussions on prime time.
It all began fourteen months ago when viewers complained of the same neta appearing simultaneously on two networks in exclusive and live interviews. In fact, vexed by a question quantum physicists have thrown up several times, on whether a person can be at two places at the same time (since an electron can), some viewers wished to know how the channels achieved this incredible feat. Or was one or both of the interviews previously recorded?’
Soon there was a deluge of other complaints. In the main they were about repetition of interviews with the same politician/actor across channels on any given day. The interviews with Aamir Khan promoting his new serial last weekend is a case in point. On earlier occasions it was a Kapil Sibal, Subrmanian Swamy or a Sachin Tendulkar.
As for panel discussions, viewers felt they featured the same old bearded suspects saying the very same things that they said last year and the year before that. What turned off viewers most was that very often they spoke (or shouted out their gyan) simultaneously creating a garbled, undecipherable audio mess. One email received by a TV channel went like this: “Saw your show Noose-nite. At one point all six panelists were screaming at the same time. `I want to be given a chance to speak…I want to be heard…Don’t tell us about your heard mentality…Arre baba I have my views..If you don’t give two minutes I’ll leave in three …’ Above all this the anchor was saying `gentlemen the nation is watching you although not hearing you…’ Is this talking heads or shouting heads? Incidentally, I have also written about this to the host of Fate of the Station (oops! Nation).”
Finally, faced with falling TRPs and growing viewer discontent, some TV channel bosses got together late last year and decided to approach the government for help. But pray, why was the DRDO chosen? Well, though it’s a defence R&D outfit, it has a track of doing “civilian” work. Those who keep track of its activities will be aware of how it (in between building missile systems) developed a solar drier for apricots and vegetables, promoted commercial exploitation of the Seabuckthorn plant for its juice and extracts and helped introduce better poultry raising techniques in Ladakh.
All this is documented. But what has gone unreported is DRDO’s remarkable findings through meticulous research that a person can only be born once (if you discount rebirth) and that any reference to his/her date of birth is inaccurate and based on hearsay or on hospital records whose veracity can be suspect . The research proved conclusively that no one could actually recall the day or year he/she was born and the very few who claimed they did failed the lie detector test. The study is seen as significant in the context of the controversy over outgoing Army Chief Gen V.K. Singh’s year of birth.
Anyway, that aside, coming to the problems faced by TV, a panel of DRDO scientists were quick to zero in on an art form known as “Object Theatre.” In this objects (spoons, forks, chairs, tables) are characters in the play and speak. These inanimate props actually express themselves through voice-overs. It is from this stream of theatre that our researchers developed their Eureka concept—interview trees, flowers (though not exactly inanimate), plates, mugs, chairs and buildings. Great idea, no doubt, but the challenge was to get these objects to actually speak.
Luckily, the DRDO team rose to the challenge. Studying sound waves emanating from non-human and animal sources they developed a machine which would convert these to a range audible to humans. Next, a multi-lingual convertor (currently developed only for English and Hindi) would shape it into spoken words. The entire system, appropriately christened Bhashavahini, has been put through field trials. And the results have been encouraging. Sample this:
A spoon from Sonia Gandhi’s table had this to say about its political inclinations: “Let me make it clear that I’m no Congress, BJP or Left chamcha. My honest opinion is that all our netas are fooling us. Manmohanji’s government has failed us. All the cutlery at 10 Janpath will say that in one voice that he has to change or be changed. And remember, this is our view, no one is spoon feeding us.” (Now imagine what an exclusive that will be on prime time and contrast it with the tame views of Congress spokespersons).
The DRDO even tried out the Bhashavahini on a chair from L.K. Advani’s Phrithviraj Road residence: “First things first,” it said in a deep voice, “I don’t think I am dead wood. Us furniture folks have a mind and a heart of our own. We may look wooden but actually know what goes on—for example what Gadkari whispered to Advanji about Sushmaji and what Vasundra Rajeji’s views are about Gadkariji. I tell you the BJP is in a mess. All the netas are in some rat race for a kursi. But no one seems to realize that the chair that seats you can unseat you.”
However, the recording that has the pride of place in the DRDO’s research document is a frank discussion between Writers’ Building (seat of the West Bengal government) and AKG Bhavan (the CPI-M headquarters in Delhi). For this two Bhashavahini systems were hooked up via satellite. Here’s the transcript:
AKG Bhavan: Hello Writerji! How are you? And how is Mamata Banerjee treating you? As for me I’m tired of accommodating all these Lefties who pretend they are concerned about the proletariat. They keep talking of change. But nothing has changed—not even their talk of wanting to change. Why, the other day, some of the tables were heard complaining that even issues tabled for discussion at politburo meetings are the same and uninspiring. But what else can we expect from all our (Karl) Marx brothers? But, that aside, tell me how are things in Cal?
Writers’ Building: Well AKG, as you know, it’s hot and humid. And Mamatadi is flustered. She hasn’t been able to fulfill all her tall pre-poll promises and the bhadralok seem to have deserted her. I think they like the organized confusion of the Left. Mamata, on the other hand, is unpredictable and her party leaders are prone to making strange and provocative statements. Otherwise things remain the same. I continue to be referred to as Rioters’ Building and all that. And yes, before I forget, here is a juicy one liner: ` When Didi met Hillary Clinton they did not actually discuss FDI in retail. What Mamata did was to repeat the same story (re-tale) about her government being industry friendly.’ Now tell me, if that was indeed true why did she force Tata to say goodbye to the Nano factory in Singur?
(Well, that was quite something! In fact, the success of its trials has inspired DRDO to dub project Bhashavahini as the next big thing in television. “With buildings talking tall, tables becoming more than surfaces, chairs expressing themselves and clocks freely indulging in tick-talk we anticipate exciting times ahead. News on TV will surely liven up,” said a memo sent by the research organization to the PMO).
So will this be the shape of TV news to come? Well, there is one stumbling block. The political class loves to be seen and heard on TV. And there are enough wannabe experts with beards and long hair who like to hear the sound of their voice after tweeting and texting to friends the timing of the show they are on…