I’ve been brewing this article in my head for the last 3 months in an effort to really understand where ethnic based media is heading. Is there a place for such media, who is controlling the editorial and does it really reach out to our youth? These are some of the areas I will explore, specifically for the three UK based Sikh Channels from a personal view-point but also based on having interfaced with them.
Like many other communities in the UK we should feel fortunate that we have media outlets. On Friday 1st October we witnessed the launch of the third Sikh based TV channel called SikhTV. All three now reside on the Sky broadcasting platform and internationally available from independent streams courtesy of the Internet. I question why Sky categorises each of these channels as International and not religious.
In one sense it is a great achievement that there are now so many ‘ethnic media’ outlets, a repercussion of deregulation and if I was cynical, it has resulted in fueling the development of new media moguls! I feel before we can understand the value of such media we need a quick revisit regarding its development.
Asian programming on BBC-television began at 9am on Sunday 10 October 1965 on BBC-1 with “In Logon Se Miliye” meaning “Can I Help You?”. In January 1966 this was replaced with “Apna Hi Ghar Samajhiye” meaning “Make Yourself At Home”, which also ran on Sunday Mornings on BBC Radio 4. By 1968 this programme was replaced on television with “Nai Zindagi Naya Jeevan” meaning “New Life, New Home”. The latter was the first major programming for Hindi and Urdu-speaking viewers and represented the beginnings of regular broadcasting in the UK for non-native English speakers. Until that point, all BBC programmes had assumed an English-speaking (and largely caucasian) audience. Also included were cultural and current affairs interviews, and performances of music. It was presented by (amongst others) Mahendra Kaul and Saleem Shahed. Finally, this was replaced around 1982 with “Gharbar” running midweek on BBC-2.
I note also that in Washington DC, a weekly Sikh programme was broadcast on Sunday’s. I couldn’t find formal references but from some personal contacts my understanding is that is was run by Dr Sethi’s family and has run for almost 20 years.
In the 1990s in the UK we saw the development of other programmes, for example Network East and selective specials, say during religious festivals. Sometimes programmes such as Michael Wood’s History of India and 1984 – A Sikh Story are issued but sadly they often skim past important events, including in the case of Michael Wood’s programme, simply lazy research!
In terms of UK radio media, from the beginnings of the Pirate station Sina Radio in the 1990s through to post deregulation to the multitude of DAB, FM and AM channels, we now have more choice than ever. Let us also not forget that some of the early pioneers have become very rich media moguls that also own international outlets. Market segmentation for all these channels is probably best described as either entertainment and or both religious. For example, Desi Radio in the early hours to 10am and then in the early evening to 7.30pm plays religious content, the rest of the time listeners are greeted with Punjabi folk music…
Maybe it is time to take stock of where we are and where we’re heading, from a TV perspective. Today, there are many Muslim based channels, again defined by SkyTV as International? There is one Hindu channel and as previously mentioned, three Sikh Channels. Let us examine the developing demographic for each of the latter three:
Sikh Channel (SC).
The channel was first on the scene, pardon the pun and although initially developed from a commercial organisation or entities, i.e: a claim based solictor and BritAsia TV. SC is now a Community Interest Company/Charity, clearly great for transparency. It is also good that they have managed to secure a large set of direct debits to help with stability. i.e: Many channels in the past, such as Channel Punjab failed. Even TV Asia, originally owned by a leading Bollywood actor ran a loss but was later resurrecting as the successful Zee empire.
It is good to see the development of programmes that focus on an outreach via Gurdwaras. It is also impressive that this channel also follows the development of Sikh issues and attempts to rally opinion.
In the early days I was involved in 4 of their programmes as both a presenter and guest, the latter during a one-to-one session. The programmes were called, ‘Let’s talk about it’ – discussion programme and German Sikhs Answers. During the recording of the discussion programme I remember turning up to the studio with 2 suits, 2 ties and a set of items that I prepared, for example: a list of questions, possible pathways for arising points, a script, a studio layout, briefing notes for the guests and a timed schedule. There was a very small green room in a corridor between the control room and recording studio. Sure, the layout was well put together but we experienced the assembly of a studio audience from random visitors and I also noticed that many of the staff were interins.
Maybe things have got better but my understanding is there is reliance on pre-recorded content from abroad and for UK based content a team is sent out to capture key events and gurdwara recordings.
What kind of audience are watching the Sikh Channel and where are they. Is it people at home during the day, random visitors, other communities or media observers at the BBC? NB The channel is Birmingham based. Therefore, can we assume that many of the viewers are from Central England. Selective Gurdwara broadcasts locations include Derby and London.
To summarise, there is some development with outreach programmes, but not as much as the early days. Editorial control appears exercised through the information roll-bar at the bottom of the screen. It is always up-to-date appearing authoritative and informational. Does the channel show leadership in terms of commentators, spokespersons and a round-up of perspectives? At this point the answer is no. They do however, have a newsround-up.
Does it have the potential to reach a youth audience? In my view, yes but only if programmes are developed with passion for addressing today’s agenda for example community-based issues, the recession and social integration issues.
This channel was launched on 1st September and is supported by a UK Charity called the Sangat Trust. We read from their website press release that:
Sangat Television, a new Sikh lifestyle channel…The focus of the new lifestyle channel is based on promoting the values of the Sikh Guru’s and Guru Granth Sahib Ji. Ranbir Singh Attwal, Trustee commented, “media must be used positively to project values through educational programmes that Sikh children and young people enjoy. Our channel aims to also reach out to the wider people of Britain so they understand our Dharam better”.
This all sounds great and I have to say that the quality of some of the films they have commissioned is good.
Although it maybe early days, it appears that they are playing pre-recorded content from India. Maybe there are plans to recruit UK based film-makers and if the education target demographic is youth aged from 3-30, will we see new talent from this pool emerging?
With a large number of trustees we have to hope that discipline and focus will be maintained to ensure a consistent development of programming. Back in July I met with one of the Trustees. I showed my cv and desire to assist. The offer is still there as I hope that some of my humble media skills can help.
Again, we have to ask the question: ‘Where is this channel heading and who’s watching’ ? Will it be commercial free? Will it allow commercials to help supplement investment?
If the assumption is that it is going to be a source of high quality educational content, then I would suggest some element of interfaith dialogue. In my view and experience, getting people together and facilitating dialogue about the differences and commonality between each faith, makes each believer stronger in their values and work towards a common purpose.
It would also be great to profile the great charity work that many people in the Sikh community perform.
Therefore, their mission of communicating ‘to the wider people of Britain so they understand our Dharam better’ could be maintained.
It is very early days for this channel. On first viewing I notice that like the other 2 channels it is showing pre-recorded content from India.
My experience with them to date has been interesting as I have suggested some programming content and the need for greater community engagement, especially for today’s non-represented youth.
What about the BBC – Don’t we already pay for national media and coverage of all people?
The BBC are appreciated all over the world. I too have to say that they are probably leaders in best practice but sometimes I feel that they act like they are a replacement of their colonial past. Typecasting continues with accented voiceovers and many of the documentaries produced by the BBC skim very important history. Just look at their coverage of the Commonwealth Games – there is little mention of the progress of other countries! In addition, both the BBC and ITV National newscasts are still heavily edited, ranked and released.
With our own media we have tried to move away from the patronising programme output from the BBC but sadly ethnic TV channels have not taken the opportunity to commission quality programmes that can communicate truth and the contribution of the Sikhs to the world.
I hope that it is just early days for all Sikh Channels. I want them to survive but also be viewed by the general public with seriousness.
Today we urgently need part (with commercial organisations) or seperate funding initiatives become established to support. These funds can support the development of films, programmes and episodes in the areas of for example:
- Films about our youth and their challenges
- Historical perspectives about Sikhs during the world wars
- How Sikhs were the largest community that sacrificing their lives during the Quit India movement
- The heritage of some of our Gurdwaras
- One-to-one sessions with role models
- Educational films on health and nutrition
- Charity initiative ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentaries
I created the following phrase, ‘If we do not create our media, somebody else will do it for us’.
This means that we need to fuel associated production costs.
Just look at the quality of output from Sikhnet.com and look at how they engage with youth, for example, the Sikhnet Film Festival. They are to be admired.
Creating quality and engaging content requires dedicated teams, experience, no political agendas and money. Only then can we create and broadcast quality that can influence the mainstream.
The alternative, is that engagement with the people who need content the most will be lost.
Do we really want to gamble and lose that risk?