People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 01

January 02, 2011

Reality behind Children’s Participation in Reality Shows


Manjeet Rathi


IMAGINE a three and a half years old boy coming on to the television stage, holding up his father’s hand and reciting verses from ‘Hanuman Chalisa’ (that he must have mugged up with strenuous pressure on his little brain nerves), to showcase his talent in a reality show called ‘India Has Got Talent --- Khoj-2.’ Judges of the show try their best to stop him after his time is over but he is not ready to leave the mike and the stage. To the utter embarrassment of the anchors, the judges and the father, the child goes on and on with the verses and the anchor had to literally pick him up in his arms and slowly lure him off the stage, his verses still audible in the background. Audiences enjoy every bit of it with non-stop clapping, the judges call it an ‘amazing feat’ and the father is elated. Who is the casualty here? Is it really the ‘incredible act’ that it was presented to be and if at all yes, then, at what cost?


In another such incident of reality show, a four years old girl, after finishing her dance, forgets the exact words of the compliments that she was trained to pass on to the judges. Tension and anxiety grip her nerves till she finally comes to remember them in parts and, wrapped in the best possible smile, she tells the judge falteringly: “You are very cute, no, no…. you are very handsome!”




Small though these tiny tots are, they are being considered certainly big enough to be a part of the showbiz where anything and everything is considered fair in the name of entertainment and popularity. ‘Entertainment ke liye kuch bhi karega’ --- the ongoing reality show on Sony Entertainment Television sums it up all. It is a ghastly, mad race for instant fame, stardom and money that is making people of all age groups go crazy over all kinds of talent hunt and the so called entertainment programmes. To showcase this talent, all kinds of shocking, weird and death defying stunts are being performed by children ranging from three or four years onwards like playing with swords, aerial dances, dances on item songs imitating adult sexual gestures and facial expressions, comic acts depicting worst aspects of human behaviour and pretty much everything that would leave the judges, audience and the viewers shocked, stunned, thrilled and ‘entertained.’ And strangely enough, its not merely the participants and  family members accompanying them but the audience, the judges, the special guests and celebrities from Bollywood, the voters over the phone, the viewers and virtually a sizeable section  who join together to  make people drown themselves in this ‘make believe’ world of reality. And in the midst of all this show and glitter, the constant announcements of huge cash prize money ranging from lakhs to crores and selling of dreams and aspirations of becoming a ‘star’ or an ‘idol’ or a ‘little champion’!


Is this merely a showcase of talent and does this provide ‘wholesome entertainment’ as is being claimed by the producers and distributors of these shows? Is this true reality or a highly constructed and influenced form of reality designed to increase ratings of the channels as well as the profits of the producers and advertisers? What are the values and lifestyles that are being promoted through the participation of children in these reality shows? And last but not the least, is reality television utilising children’s unique talents or exploiting them for commercial purposes and dehumanizing them by ruining their chances for a real life?


These are some of the areas that need immediate probing. While reality shows featuring children may increase the popularity of the related channels and may fill up the coffers of the advertising agencies, it would be fatal to ignore more severe realities that lurk behind these shows ranging from intense physical and emotional strains to drastic changes in their normal routine, and psychological behaviour. And what is worse is that these kind of false realities better called ‘illusions,’ leave their adverse impact on children both ways --- children who are successful and become stars as well as those who are not so successful and get eliminated in the early rounds. Fame has its own consequences and coming so early in one’s life where the child simply does not know how to handle it can be severe and brutal. Children performing well and becoming stars overnight find it very difficult to cope with the real life once the ‘stardom’ is over. This results in deep frustration stretching even to the extent of causing self-harm in a state of dejection and despair. On the other hand, children who presumably fail to perform up to the expected levels, suffer in their own ways the pangs of being rejected.




According to the psychologists and other experts, reality shows for children are not a healthy concept since it involves harsh and rigorous residential training sessions organised by the channels which run for months together that severely affect the natural growth and development of the child apart from disturbing the daily routine, dietary patterns, school’s work and other forms of social interaction. Many young contestants while undergoing these training sessions happen to injure themselves or begin to suffer from serious health problems like loss of sleep and appetite, emotional breakdowns, traumas and nightmares. In many of the cases, the sudden change in the song or dance sequence at the very last minute by the mentors, to make it something different from other participants, makes the matters worse for the poor kids but unmindful and many a times, unaware of the consequences, they would do anything for winning the show.


And who is responsible for pushing them along in this mad race of attaining instant fame and becoming ‘champions’? No doubt, the allurement of the big prize money and other glittering ‘trophies,’ along with the exotic locations combined with the temptation of becoming a household name, becomes too much of an attraction even for the parents to resist. But let us not forget the bigger forces who have laid down this trap --- the global market forces and the big corporate houses who are selling these affluent lifestyles and values of aggression, desensitisation, wealth, skin beauty and instant fame as ‘real’ sources of happiness and well being of the individual and the society.


In many of the shows, the children are expected to dance in a manner that is highly provocative and sensuous involving language and gestures that are totally inappropriate for the children. Andhra Pradesh State Human Right Commission, in one of its recent judgements, has categorically stated that “the dances which are made to perform by the children, are based upon the cinema songs with double meanings, indecent gestures and gyrations and some times the girls are tossed up and cuddled. To say concisely, the reality shows meant for young are in clear violation of the human rights of the children.”


And to add to the woes, the anchors and the trainers introduce these children before their performance and the judges and the special guests assess them in full public view --- either by lifting them to the sky, comparing them with original singers and cine stars, or passing comments that make them  feel depressed or even shed tears. The question here is: Are these children mature enough to handle the harsh comments of the judges when they fail to perform up to the desired standards? We all know how one of the girls from Kolkata got so shocked after hearing the humiliating remark from one of the judges that she suffered from paralysis. One other participant suffered from slip disk while practising. Then, there are countless others who are severely depressed when they are not selected for the next round. And all this when there is intense competition involving rejection at every level!


The more the fear of rejection, the more the pressure to perform better! It is really a vicious circle where organisers, parents, friends, well wishers all join together to enjoy a ‘reality’ which shocks and depresses more than it entertains. But who cares for the consequences as long as money flows like water!




And whose reality is it, anyway, that is being portrayed in these reality shows? Can we call these unusual locations, these special, gaudy dresses with heavy makeup, high voltage of electric bulbs and high-pitched deafening sounds real? Isn’t the whole situation and portrayal of events a highly manipulative and contrived activity designed to create special effects and obviously for a larger commercial purpose? Is it reality or pure clear sensationalism that is at the very centre of each and every reality show as the main tool to attract more and more viewers and to generate more and more profit? Most experts feel that the values of fleeting fame, success and happiness that are being created and encouraged by these shows often lead to the development of worst kinds of behavioural aspects in the children. They begin to see money as a sure way to success and in the process the real values of patience and diligence, of caring and sharing get affected. Since situations depicted in reality shows are a deviation from the natural lives and everyday experience, absence of these situations in real life lead to lack of adaptability, loss of confidence and self-esteem and encouragement of mean, aggressive and self-centred traits.


Besides impacting participants, such shows affect large sections of children as viewers too. During the telecast of such shows, many of which occupy prime time slot, children refuse to study, play, rest or interact with friends or family members. After the show, many children try to imitate the inappropriate language and dance gestures. When checked and scolded, they begin to behave rudely or aggressively towards parents and family members. The continuous depiction of children in sexually suggestive adult postures is not only depriving them of their childhood and innocence; it may also rob them of their ability to recognise or discourage indecent language, touch or conduct by adults towards them. Many voluntary organisations and Child Right Groups and activists have sought the intervention from legal authorities and various human right commissions on the ground that this kind of ‘celebration’ of talent garbed in the form of entertainment is nothing but commercial exploitation of children by various television channels and should immediately be put an end to.




The question here is: Should these reality shows be banned altogether? As per the verdict of the Supreme Court, the children below 8 years of age should, in any case, be strictly prohibited to take part in such shows and children up to 14 years should be allowed only under strict monitoring of the content and the hours of participation. The parents supporting these shows argue that instead of being exploitation of their children, such shows lead to promotion of skills and talent in the children and help in the development of their personality in the future. But surely, they too would agree that, to serve that purpose, reality television programmes certainly need to be put in proper perspective. When approached by several petitioners, including many parents and women organisations, the Andhra Pradesh State Human Rights Commission pronounced its verdict in these words:


“….every child has got a right to participate in cultural activities, which may include dance, songs, painting and any other art which are recognised to be healthy for the growth of a child but they are subject to maintaining dignity, decency and discipline and certainly the reality shows of the kind performed and telecast do not fall within the said limits of dignity, decency or discipline and are therefore liable to be prohibited forthwith.”


This is not to say that children do not need to participate in various kinds of cultural activities but surely some line will have to be drawn between positive expression of their skills and unhealthy commercial exploitation that negatively affects their dignity, innocence and childhood. Unfortunately, encouraged by the interest generated by such television shows, even some of the schools have started organising similar dance shows during their functions, thus leading to distorted impact on perceptions and practices regarding extra-curricular activities in the schools.


In such a scenario when everything including human relations is mediated by corporate dictated  interests, who is ultimately responsible for protection of the children from not only the continuous onslaught of  market dominated culture and value system but also from their unhealthy exploitation in the garb of illusory name and fame? Will the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting show some political will by strictly enforcing the existing laws and guidelines and taking exemplary steps against the organisers, broadcasters and sponsors of such shows which make a mockery of these laws? Further, what is urgently needed is the enactment of a comprehensive law that prevents the exploitation of the children for commercial use and gives strict guidelines to all channels for positive and dignified portrayal of the children. Meanwhile, permission should be suspended to channels that are found transmitting objectionable content or encouraging demeaning cultural practices through the employment and use of children.


The point is simple. Anything and everything for the sake of healthy growth and development of the child but not for the sake of commercial entertainment channels affecting the very foundations of creativity, innocence and human bonding! Let the children be provided an atmosphere where they learn to become humans first before becoming ‘stars.’