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What is Infotainment: A Brief Overview
The word “infotainment” is a neologism formed by combining the words “information” and “entertainment”. Webster Dictionary says that infotainment is referred to “a television program that presents information (as news) in a manner intended to be entertaining”. According to Oxford English Dictionary, infotainment is ‘broadcast material which is intended both to entertain and to inform’. Thus, infotainment denotes a phenomenon in which the style of presenting an information becomes as important as its content.
The terms "Infotainment" and "Infotainer" were first used in September 1980 at the Joint Conference of Aslib, the Institute of Information Scientists and the Library Association in Sheffield, UK. An earlier, and slightly variant term, "Infortainment" was coined in 1974 as the title of the 1974 convention of the Intercollegiate Broadcasting System (IBS), the association of college radio stations in the United States. It was defined as the "nexus between Information and Entertainment”. By 1992, the word ‘infotainment’ had made it into Roget’s Thesaurus.
Analysis Of The Term
The narrower view considers that infotainment is always television, mostly news and ‘mainly disapproving’ but gradually the term has encompassed many genres of programming providing a variety of functions. It ranges from news to documentaries, satellite radios to community radios and need not be confined to the broadcast media but can be any print material in the form of tabloids or magazines or may even diffuse to the new media in the form of blogs, websites etc. The emerging of infotainment in television programming has been blamed for creating a ‘lowest common denominator society’, arguing that ‘the news media have contributed to a decrease in attention span and the death of curiosity, optimism, civility, compassion for others and abstract and conceptual reasoning’ (Arden, 2003). Many senior journalists, including John Humphrys of the BBC, have expressed serious concerns about ‘dumbing down’ (Humphrys, 1999). It is said that the dawn of infotainment has altered the idea of news. ‘It stopped being essentially information and became something designed to produce - at all costs, always - an emotional reaction, the more extreme the better’ (Andrew Marr, 2004).
But entertaining news entails much more than a carnivalseque communication experience and seems to be more inclusive in its mode of communication. It is also a tool of agenda setting and propaganda in the hands of the communicator which may slant the information in a particular direction leading to manipulative communication and exaggeration of reaction. In the developing world, infotainment is also used as an instrument to diffuse innovation within the population.
Global infotainment can be defined as the delivery of information and entertainment across a digitally linked globe enabled by the convergence of the telecommunications, computer and media industries. The creation of the infrastructure for global infotainment mainly took place during 1990s, when fundamental ideological changes in the post-Cold War global political arena and the triumph of free-market neo-liberalism were routinely bandied about in media and policy discourses (Thussu, 2008). The notion of the ‘informational state’ (Braman, 2006) and pro-market international regimes following the processes of deregulation and privatization in the communication and media industries transformed the global television landscape. The decisive shift from the public-service role of television and telecommunications to private competition and deregulation had a major impact on international communications policy, shaped by the US and European Union countries, which are also home to companies with global ambitions (Braman, 2004, 2006). The policy of liberalizing the global telecommunication was greatly influenced by the 1996 US Telecommunications Act, which not only transformed the industry within US but enabled private US telecommunications corporations to operate globally. Thus, critically global infotainment is also called as the ‘globalization of US-style rating-driven television journalism which privileges privatized soft news about celebrities, crime, corruption and violence and presents it as a form of spectacle, at the expense of news about political, civic and public affairs’ (Thussu, 2008). But India sets a different example in this context with its educational and informational programs of Doordarshan (Surbhi, Turning Point, etc) and All India Radio. Community Radios too, provide infotainment in the remote areas thereby enabling the diffusion of information at the grassroots and also rendering voice to the voiceless. Infotainment, especially in its global context, entails much more than ‘dumbing down’; it works as a powerful discourse of diversion.
Infotainment Through Satellites
Satellite links are crucial in disseminating infotainment in a global television market place. Ever since the mid-1960s, when geostationary communications satellites first began to beam pictures across nations and oceans, unrestricted by geographical terrain, satellites have played a key role in the globalization of television (Oslund and Pelton, 2004). With communication satellites being launched by many countries (such as India and China) and by regional consortia (Eutelsat, Arabsat, AsiaSat and Hispasat), there are many more providers of infotainment hardware in a crowded geostationary spectrum.
The neo-liberal policy regime has generated a global market place for infotainment and created major infotainment conglomerates. As the satellite industry demands substantial investment, only transnational corporations and other large businesses can afford to exploit this communication hardware. This lead to on a wave of mergers and acquisitions in the media industry. In 1985, Rupert Murdoch bought Twentieth Century Fox in order to acquire a base in the US and in 1989 Sony purchased Columbia TriStar. In the same year Time Inc. merged with Warner Communication, forming Time Warner to which Turner Broadcasting Systems was added in 1995. Disney bought Capital Cities/ABC in 1995, thereby adding a broadcast network to a traditionally entertainment company. By 2006, fewer than ten corporations, most based in the US owned a large section of media industries, with AOL-Time Warner being at the forefront. Such mergers have led to a new kind of monopoly i.e. media monopoly.
Infotainment In India
Since I am from India, I would write about a brief scenario of infotainment here as well.
Doordarshan monopolized Indian television industry since 1959. But the entry of Star network in the scenario during 1990s changed the essence of television programming completely. In ideological terms too, it was a major shift in television news culture, from public-service to profit-oriented programming. Doordarshan is committed to paying attention to the field of education and spread of literacy and hence it introduced a satellite channel, Gyandarshan, dedicated to education, in 2000 in collaboration with IGNOU. It also introduced a technical education channel in collaboration with Indian Institute of Technology. Despite such worthy rhetoric and seemingly unsustainable content of broadcasting by private networks, catering consumerist ideology among the population where majority are economically deprived, Doordarshan was pressurized to provide entertainment oriented programming. The increasing marketization of television leaves out of the picture the majority of India’s citizens. Corporatized news also diminishes the egalitarian potential of media. Intruding into the privacy of celebrities and broadcasting scandals in the name of infotainment raises many ethical questions.
With the advent of advertisement driven programming, Indian television scenario experienced exponential growth in the number of television channels. India has emerged as one of the world’s biggest television markets. The unprecedented growth has been spurred on by massive increases in advertising revenue and the fast rate of growth of the media and entertainment business lead to a robust annual economic growth. The growth and expansion of Indian entertainment corporations also lead to the globalization of Bollywood which ensured that Indian films are increasingly being watched by an international audience. Consequently, the three Cs - cinema, crime and cricket encapsulate most of the content of Indian news programmes. Prominent among these is the apparent obsession of almost all news channels with celebrity culture which centres on Bollywood ( Thussu, 2008 ).
Programmes such as “The making of …” a particular ( usually big-budget ) film are routinely broadcast on news channels and Zee News runs a daily bulletin called ‘Bollywood News’. Bollywoodization has even affected the political elite, the former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had video of his poetries telecast on television, sung and set to music by top composer and singer Jagjit Singh and the video had a Bollywood style picturization, starring Shah Rukh Khan and directed by Yash Chopra. In 2006, Amitabh Bachchan featured in a promotional video distributed by a political party. The Indian version of the History Channel employed former Miss World Diana Hayden, in 2005, to front the series ‘Biography’. Since 2005, NDTV 24x7 has also run a spoof news bulletin hosted by film stars Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukherjee – ‘Bunty and Babli do NDTV’, as a promotion for their 2005 film ‘Bunty aur Babli’.
Ethics And Infotainment
Although news organizations and infotainment conglomerates functions under certain moral obligations but news infotainment often takes slant and prints or broadcast opinions rather than just information defeating the purpose of news which acts as agent to diffuse information thereby helping to generate public opinion instead of throwing opinions on the public. An increasing trend across the news channels to personalized reporting and a blatant intrusion of privacy is discernable. For example, a taped conversation between a hugely popular film star and his former girlfriend ( later found to be a fake ) and the grainy video pictures captured through mobile telephones of a leading actress kissing her boyfriend also an actor. Since the marriage between journalism and entertainment has taken place, an in depth moral analysis of the media corporation and its obligations becomes increasingly important. In matters of pure entertainment, the public expect companies to avoid offensive programming. The press, on the other hand, may be forced to offend some audience members in order to create a viable forum for political dissent. Thus, dilemma to take ethical decisions in infotainment persists. At a minimum what media institutions can do is to view the duty to promote representation of diverse views in a democracy as a moral and civic duty rather than making programming decisions solely based on profits. As infotainment has become the mantra to disseminate information, multimedia conglomerates should restrain from exaggerating or manipulating the exact fact to make it entertaining rather can present it in an innovative fashion without any overwhelming reaction. For example, India TV is accused for manipulating the infographics explaining the path followed by waves during tsunami in 2006, that had been broadcast in its news program which was later being corrected by BBC. Many news channels are also blamed for sensationalizing trivial issues under the banner of ‘Breaking News’ thereby creating panic among people. News channels like India TV, Aaj Tak sometimes run a whole news bulletin on issues like ‘Kya yeh alien doodh peeta hai ‘ or ‘Delhi ke sadko par bhoot nikal aaya hai ‘.
Ethics are stuffs of everyday life, they are ubiquitous and varies with varying perspective but every media organization should work maintaining certain moral prescriptions and broadcast programs just not to satisfy the profit motives but also to fulfill their responsibilities as the 4th estate of a nation.
Epistemologically, infotainment is a revolutionary concept which has changed the media scenario globally. Infotainment does not only mean cashing on matters of less importance having high entertainment values but it also include educating ( edutainment ) and informing people in an innovative way that differs from the mundane methodology of bombarding with information following a top-down model of communication. Programs like ‘Gali gali sim sim’ telecast in Disney Channel sets example where children can be taught with the help of their favourite toon characters. In this essay, we tried to focus on both the utility and problems of infotainment and advertisement driven television programming promoting consumerist lifestyle. Many public service broadcasters also entertain people with information which can be exemplified by programme content of community radios. Documentaries are important source of infotainment but opinionated documentary features such as Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 11’ and a short film on Telengana by Telengana Joint Action Committee comes under ethical questionnaire. In short, it can be said that infotainment as a domain of mass-communication has tremendous potential to diffuse information to the grass roots provided media owners shed their metropolitan affinity and become more inclusive.
Thussu, Daya Kishan (2008), News as Entertainment, The Rise of Global Infotainment, London, Sage Publications Ltd.
Berry, David (2008), Journalism, Ethics and Society, Great Britain, Ashgate Publishing Limited
http://www.abc.net.au/rn/mediareport/stories/2000/148983.htm, accessed on 08-02-10
http://www.jstor.org/stable/1145989, accessed on 21-01-10