The power to idiotize

One of the most compelling public affairs programs on Philippine television today is GMA-7’s “I-Witness,” a show featuring documentaries made by the station’s young reporters.  Every week, a different host gets to write the script, go on location shoots, and present the show.  My daughter, Kara, is fortunate to be one of the regular hosts. It is the best assignment a journalist in any medium can possibly have.  Because of their reflective approach to their subject, shows like “I-Witness” can induce vital changes in the public consciousness.

The question we must ask is: Why are they shown so late?  Last Monday, I stayed up to wait for Kara’s piece “Sa Mata ni Ekang,” an exploration of childhood and poverty in Metro Manila’s slums. The TV guide puts its airing time at 12:15, a little past midnight. It came in at 12:40 a.m., by which time I had trouble keeping my eyes and mind focused.  “Saksi,” GMA-7’s 30-minute late evening news, precedes “IWitness.”  It was supposed to air at 11:45 p.m.  It came in half an hour late, its own time slot having been colonized by the hour-long “Lagot Ka Isusumbong Kita,” an improbable adult comedy show strung together by relentless inanity.  “Lagot Ka” was also running late, like all the other primetime shows before it – mostly telenovela serials, because, very likely, the station’s live noontime “Eat Bulaga” lunch show went on extra time.

This appears to be a daily routine at GMA-7.  Public affairs shows like “Palaban” (which replaced “Debate”) normally air just before I a.m.  In the ‘80s and ‘90s, talk shows aired regularly at 10:30 p.m. But air time has since become more precious, with more advertisers chasing after a limited stretch of primetime.

When I began hosting a public affairs show on Channel 13 in 1986, I was assigned a 9:30 p.m. slot.  The show was moved to 10 p.m. and then to 10:30, where it stayed for many years.  The political satire “Sic O’clock News” preceded my program “Public Forum,” and both were directed by the filmmaker Marilou Diaz-Abaya.  It was the heyday of social commentary.  By the time I left television hosting in 2003, the show I was doing with Katrina Legarda for Channel 2, “Offthe-Record,” would typically come in at midnight.  We ended up taping the show a few hours before just to make the schedule less aggravating to our guests.

ABS-CBN (Channel 2) has since moved its public affairs shows, except the news, to its cable station, ANC, where they are aired in the early evening, and replayed.  The gain in time slot, however, has entailed the sacrifice of a vital audience – the mass viewers who rely on free television.  Which of the two strategies works better for the public: Channel 7’s relegation of public affairs to the dead hours after midnight, or Channel 2’s decision to exile these programs altogether to cable television?

The answer to this question must proceed from a clear understanding of the functions of the mass media in any society.  They are modern society’s main sources of information, but they are also the principal purveyors of entertainment, and often the latter interferes with the former.  As business ventures, they are drawn more closely to entertainment than to information.  Yet, as social institutions that play a crucial role in the shaping of the public mind, they are expected to enrich the flow of information in society.  This is done not just by increasing the volume of information but by introducing perspectives that depart from or clash with habitual ways of seeing.

“This is how the system allows new blood to flow in,” says the sociologist Niklas Luhmann.  “In this way the system is able to generate resistance to its own habits.  It can produce ‘changes in values’, it can give preference to minority opinions that push themselves to the fore, perhaps especially because they appear as spectacular, full of conflict, deviant, and therefore trigger the ‘spiral of silence…”  It is when we are faced with information that is not consistent with our own personal experiences that we are provoked to think, to question our own beliefs about the world.

I don’t know exactly how the story of Ekang, the 3-year-old girl, from whose eyes last Monday’s “I-Witness” looks at the world, would have been received by Filipino viewers.  The girl’s fascinating vocabulary is peppered with cuss words taken from the colorful slang of her elders. Her mother, a drug pusher, sends her out to buy a few sticks of cigarettes. She hears her father, a tricycle driver during the day and a robber at night, explain why his sortie the other night netted him nothing. Her grandmother, a pimp, cuddles Ekang as she tells the camera how they got to where they are today.  A sensitive viewer could begin to wonder how many kids are growing up under these circumstances, why, and what future, if any, awaits them.

Television has the power to trigger such reflections.  Even if it is merely to irritate us or to make us uncomfortable, every thought like this forms a weak link in the reproduction of complacency.  It challenges our memory and the consistency of our beliefs.  It breaks the stupor created by “the continuum of perception that is the world.”

Do we wonder why, despite our high literacy rate, Filipino voters seem unable to command enough discernment in their choice of public officials?  In an election year like this, the big players of the television industry might ask themselves if they have not, wittingly or unwittingly, used their power of communication to idiotize the masses.


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