How Indian TV became the dumbest in the world

THE CYNICAug 31, 2016 | 20:27

How Indian TV became the dumbest in the world

There is a great dumb down happening all around, and inadvertently, India may fast be slipping into becoming the greatest nation in the world when it comes to dumbness. But before the machetes come out, for the sake of the reader, let me elaborate a bit on the definition of dumb.

For the purpose of what is written hereafter, dumb, is a state of being that is inversely proportional to being knowledgeable. So while one can be dumb, I am not contending that the person cannot be smart, sly or cunning. For example, a street-smart person can be a very capable hustler or a conman, but need not be intellectually or even academically knowledgeable. For the purpose of this article, let us be clear that dumb equals an amazing mix of self-centred stupidity that refuses to embrace new knowledge.


Now switch on your TV sets and go to any non-news English channel...see that line of white characters towards the bottom of the screen...there lies proof of the beginning of dumb down. Every programme now comes with the ubiquitous subtitle. Initially, it seems to be a help, because one does not always get the foreign accent, be it English from America or from England. But over time, dependence sets in and before you know it, you are programmed to read subtitles even if you can understand the accent.

Take the test - try watching something without subtitles and you will find that you are unable to appreciate what is being said. In the process an audiovisual medium is being restricted to video and that too to text video content only. You are no longer listening to the words, it merges with the general soundscape of the programme and you are not even looking at the visual play - all because you are busy reading the subtitles.

Try watching something without subtitles and you will find that you are unable to appreciate what is being said.

This is a classic example of short-term gain at the expense of learning something forever. Not only are those subtitles not helping anybody learn, they are making one dependent on them. If the option of subtitles were not there, one would make an effort to understand what is being said, while at the same time being able to catch the visuals play out on screen.


Even English films, in theatres, are nowadays always projected with the subtitles on. The result is a pathetic state of affairs where one is doomed to being confined to a zombie state where everything is spoon-fed.

The option of subtitles should ideally be optional - the technology exists and is easily available. Subtitling, like close captioning, should give the viewer the option to choose whether it needs to be on or off. It comes in DVDs, and is possible in multiple languages, so why would it be difficult to have them on TV?

Downlinking TV signals at homes is mostly digital nowadays, be it on DTH or through cable via set-top boxes. All that is needed is an extra button on the remote. Not having that one button can well be considered a national loss because that one missing button is akin to a virtual dumb switch perpetually in the ON position.

Not just the non-news English channels...take the Indian news channels - there is more text than visuals, and if that is not enough, there are circles and highlights and arrows telling you what to look for. And we are not even discussing the level of content that is being shrieked out to sensationalise everything. The overall impact is that only basic emotions are being addressed - hate, envy and schadenfreude - borrowed from the German language but now a part of English - it means deriving pleasure from the misfortune of others.


TV news with all its text and choice of stories is another "sensational" example of the great Indian dumb down. No longer is it necessary to aim higher to achieve a higher plane of understanding, but aim lower so that more numbers can be added. The minimum common denominator is the key word and the goal is to address that.

In the process, bring down those who have or are capable of climbing out of the constricting well of the minimum common denomination. Intelligence is on the wane and the need to hone it, to learn and understand different cultures, to learn new languages, to learn the nuances of a spoken tongue are no longer deemed necessary.

There were generations in the past who were told to listen to the news on radio or read the newspaper, to not just know about what is happening in the world but to master a language. Dare you do that to your children today, because what is available is hardly of any intellectual merit.

The level of expectation has fallen so low that even the English news readers on All India Radio, once the doyens of the spoken language, are today those who have terrible pronunciations. On the subject of pronunciation, the child actors and voiceover artists on English language advertisements are evidence enough of the pathetic language skills of coming generations.

The mantra now is that everything has to be quick fix and catchy. Everything is interface-driven, apps for this or that. Think of the subtitles as an app that is translating a language that you know, to a dumber language that is supposedly easier for you to understand, confining your skills to its very basic limitations. With subtitles comes a language that is the aspirational language of the masses.

In a globalised world, it is more than ever the required language skill and that cannot be done through SUBTITLES. But then, India has the might of numbers behind it, so eventually what may happen is that the world will have to learn Indian English, and Indians won't have to strain to make them be understood or unnecessarily strain to understand anybody else.

The onus will be on the others to understand what Indians are saying even when they are speaking English without subtitles - so how dumb is that, as a proposition?

Last updated: August 31, 2016 | 21:44
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