TV gossip shows dish the dirt for ratings

Hera Diani, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Do a bit of TV channel surfing at any time of the day, and chances are you will stumble across an update on the latest celebrity menage a trois or bitter custody battle.

Perhaps the country's largest Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama was going too far in trying to declare TV infotainment shows haram (sinful). But with the airwaves saturated with sensationalistic celebrity gossip programs, there is no denying they are generally monotonous, uncreative and pander to the lowest common denominator among viewers.

There are now 40 such shows on 11 private stations, offering the same formulaic approach to sating the public's celebrity fixation. Angles for the established topics -- who's dating who, upcoming marriages, babies on the way or relationships gone sour -- vary little.

Teen actress Laudya Cynthia Bella added a dose of reality to the barrage of questions about if and when she would marry boyfriend Panji Trihatmojo, a grandson of former strongman Soeharto.

"Give me a break, I'm only 18, don't ask me about marriage yet," she said.

The marriage question also is asked ad nauseam of gay public figures, who offer up the same pat answers of waiting for Mr. or Ms. Right to come along even if they are on the wrong side of 50.

Comments of the hosts are often fawningly star-struck, inane and blatantly sexist (an actor charged with rape was paid glowing tributes for his good looks, while the same shows delved into the sexual history of his accuser).

Ignatius Haryanto from the Institute of Press and Development Studies said the increase in the number of the programs was due to the economic crisis in the late 1990s. It forced the stations to focus on programming with low production costs, including gossip shows.

Nevertheless, there were still ethics to abide by, particularly principles of journalism, he added, "if they want to still be called journalists, like they always claim.

"Besides, there are dozens of things to explore within the entertainment industry that are more interesting than some celebrity relationship."

He also urged reporters to respect celebrities' privacy and not get the story at all costs.

"Sources have the right not to answer. Don't follow them around if they said no, or even hit their cars, like what happened to singer Nicky Astria when she refused interviews," Ignatius said.

"And don't say it's the celebrities' obligation to answer since they are 'public figures'. What's going on in their private lives has nothing to do with the general public's good."

Media observer Veven S.P. Wardhana said people should not be fooled by the reported high ratings of the shows, because the ratings system was neither transparent nor reliable.

SCTV public relations manager Budhi Darmawan acknowledged that the average rating share for gossip shows was between one to four points, while local soap operas scored higher with an eight to 12 share.

"The rating system only surveys people who watch the shows. What about those who don't watch them? Maybe there are dozens who already sick of them," Veven said.
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