WATCH WHAT I SAY YOU WATCH © Duncan Graham 2007
Imagine a production-line where the manufacturer knows little of the consumers, but still claims to understand their tastes.
Imagine a mega-business controlled and dominated by men where the customers are overwhelmingly female – yet women have no say in the product.
Imagine not - this is real. Welcome to Indonesia’s sinetron (TV soap opera) industry, a father-knows-best dream factory that’s way out of touch with its audience, according to Dr Rachmah Ida.
This professional media observer said she’s found that the Indonesian TV industry is conceited, arrogant, overwhelmingly male and unadventurous.
Ida, 38, a lecturer in media at Surabaya’s prestigious Airlangga University, has spent four years studying and analysing audience reactions to sinetron.
She is also a researcher at the university’s Center for Women’s Studies and has written on the way women – and particularly celebrities - are portrayed on TV.
Another interest is the way women are supposed to be seen as the moral guardians of the nation, though seldom as individuals.
Ida studied in Australia under an Australian aid scholarship. She has been awarded a PhD from Western Australia’s Curtin University for her cathode ray marathon viewing, and of course, her academic analyses.
“The audience I found is quite different from the one imagined by the sinetron producers,” she said. “They rely on surveys by media research companies for audience profiles and numbers.
“I spent four months in a Surabaya kampung watching women watch sinetrons. I found viewers to be highly critical of the programs and the characters.
“Their education had stopped after junior high school, but their tastes were quite sophisticated. They often ridiculed the glamour and settings; for them the storyline was most important, particularly if it related to their world.”
For many Indonesians TV watching is a group activity and the source of comment. People watch with friends and neighbors. Often the set is on as background to the domestic chores, though not in Ida’s house where her daughter’s homework, reading and personal study take priority.
In her research Ida found kampong audiences weren’t satisfied with the stations’ offerings. The women also bought and rented VCDs, including soft-porn titles – debunking the idea that sex on the screen is strictly men’s business.
Ida said the sinetron market was dominated by one major production house, PT Multivision Plus, which reportedly controls 80 per cent of the industry. It’s run by Surabaya-born Indian Raam Punjabi.
So his tastes determine the content and his boosters claim he shapes society. But that doesn’t match Ida’s findings. She says the viewers know it’s all froth and bubble and doesn’t change their lives.
Actresses may be forever bulging their eyeballs across the screen, but women feature off-screen only as make-up artists and caterers. The producers, directors, scriptwriters and technical crew are mostly male, according to Ida.
The highest-ranking woman in the industry is Punjabi’s wife and business partner, Raakhe.
If you think some sinetron scenes break the rules of cinematography, you’re right. The producers believe their audiences watch on small TV sets so need prolonged close ups and high-contrast colours to impact.
However Ida’s research showed kampong viewers have big screen sets and can catch plot lines without having slow zooms and close-ups repeated. And repeated.
Sinetrons tend to fall into four main categories:
· Moral Muslims. A hothead youngster goes astray but is rescued by benign friends and relatives wearing well-pressed headscarves and sarong who lead the backslider back to the mosque.
· Morbid mysteries. Superstition, black magic and things that go bump in the night. Devious folk in discourse with devils. The resurrection of those with rigor mortis is de-rigueur. Humans transmogrifying into beasts is the weekly scene-stealer – but don’t expect Spielberg-quality special effects. These ghouls are for giggles.
· Dysfunctional families. Machiavellian mothers-in-law and manipulative maids brew poisons and plan the demise of their dearly unbeloved – while the naïve Bapak is otherwise engaged. Expect many faces to be slapped and doors slammed.
· Campus crises. Boy (with big car) meets girl (with big ambitions). Boy looses girl to rotten rival. Girl realizes mistake, repents. Education? The kids in these teen traumas are more interested in sex and status than studies.
Indonesia’s population of around 240 million is so diverse and scattered there can’t be any typical TV viewer. Generalities are inevitable. But Ida claims the sinetron producers and telecasters using research data to construct an audience have got it wrong.
“Neither the TV stations nor programming producers nor production houses know who they’re talking to and what the public is,” she said. “Even worse they don’t know what will sell well in the market.
“No-one else has conducted a survey like mine with a real audience.
“Viewers aren’t fooled. They’re contemptuous of many stock characters like the scheming mother-in-law and the femme fatale. Such figures don’t feature in their experience. They jeer at some situations as being beyond credibility, or just plain stupid.
“The audience isn’t passive. It’s critical of much of the fare. The women I encountered saw most sinetrons as Jakarta-centric and unreal. Few teenagers are interested.
“Television is an important part of Indonesian life. People want entertainment. But they also want stories that relate to the lives they lead. They don’t want the fantasies of a fictional world constructed by men in the metropolis.
“The producers’ position is obvious and instantly recognisable; any talk about the sinetron as art is for them the height of absurdity.
Ida said viewers were labelled gluttons for goods, wallets to be opened to advertisers. The agenda was about raising rupiah, not intellectual standards.
In her research Ida also learned that you never visit an Indonesian TV station on a Wednesday afternoon hoping to interview an executive. For that’s the wrist-slashing or champagne-popping time when the ratings are released.
In the commercial television circus, ratings are the thumbs up or down equivalent of Roman gladiatorial games. If the figures are plunging, so are executives’ careers.
Few of the people at the top were prepared to talk to her for her research. An exception was Ishadi SK, the president director of Trans TV who told Ida: ‘There’s no idealism behind this business, only how to be profitable.’
There are more than 60 local stations operating across the nation. Another 50 applications for new services await approval. Does more choice mean diversity?
Commented Ida: “After the resignation of Suharto (in 1998) there’s been little significant change among the players in the television business.
“Ownership is concentrated in the hands of a few and is all about creating the so-called ‘little kings’ of regional ownership. Having more TV stations doesn’t lead to more diversity in programming.
“To minimise their risks and uncertainties private TV stations tend to play safe by repeating programs or copying other stations’ productions rather than having the courage to introduce alternative or new programming models.
“The future is scary because media ownership is so restricted. I’m not optimistic of any meaningful change.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 27 August 07)