The Age of False Binaries

16 Jul,2021


By Shailesh Kapoor


Shailesh KapoorSimplification is always tempting, and generally a good thing too. But increasingly, the world around us is showing a tendency to over-simplify narratives. With attention spans reducing, nuance is becoming an elusive idea too. And a direct offshoot of this socio-political trend is the emergence of false binaries: a debate that’s framed as either-or, with no room in the middle.


If you carefully notice, false binaries are all around us. And the discourse around the Indian media industry has not been spared either. Here are five false binaries that you are likely to encounter at some time or the other if you are associated with this industry.


Progressive v/s Regressive
This is perhaps the oldest false binary in the industry, dated back to a time when the term ‘false binary’ was not even in vogue. It’s a peculiar way in which the Indian media, especially the English press, has framed the debate around our mainstream GEC content for more than two decades now. If a show is not proactively progressive, it must be termed “regressive”. The lens applied is very urban and elitist, which makes this binary particularly flawed. Here’s a column I wrote on this topic back in 2014.


TV v/s OTT
This false binary mushroomed about three-four years ago, with the rise of streaming platforms in India. Health warning: Discussing this topic can be a yawn-including exercise in pointlessness. Pitching two media as different as chalk and cheese, against each other, and suggesting that only one will eventually survive, reflects poor understanding of the video content market in India. TV has not only survived through these last few years, it has grown stronger. Neither have the number of TV households come down, nor has the time spent watching TV reduced, since the emergence of OTT platforms. The reason is simple: Television viewing is the only daily family habit in India today, and its existence is secure till the institution of family remains relevant in India. Which is at least another 25 years, if not more.


Nationalistic v/s Anti-National
This is a news nuance that we must learn to live with in the current times. If you question anything that’s even remotely ‘patriotic’ in its framing, you must be an anti-national. This false binary plays out every night on news channel debates, and is now acquiring bizarre proportions and mutating into variants too, like pro-Hindutva versus anti-Hindi. In a recent debate on the Ayodhya Ram Mandir land ‘scam’ on a Hindi news channel, a political spokesperson from the Opposition was chided by the anchor: “How much did you donate for the construction of the temple? And if you have not, what right do you have to talk about it?” To come up with something as twisted as that extempore on a live debate takes some special talent!


Data v/s Gut
As someone who uses data to aid informed decision-making for media companies over the last 13 years, one has learnt to live with this rather tempting-to-believe false binary. Gut (or instinct or experience) is a powerful thing. A good instinct can often be key to how well one can contextualise and use data to one’s advantage. Data, when combined with a good gut, is a potent tool. Data, with poor gut, can be dangerous. Give three people the same data points at the same time, and meet them one month later to discuss it. The three discussions won’t have much in common. And this is a true story.


Theatrical v/s OTT
This variant of the TV versus OTT binary is the latest irritant on my list. Every other journalist covering the media sector wants to headline a story on films releasing directly on OTT during the pandemic through the lens of this false binary. OTT platforms are not designed to replicate the outdoor experience offered by cinema. And hence, both will find a place under the sun. The framing of a false binary such as TV vs. OTT or theatrical versus OTT assumes that the consumer has a finite, fixed time to spend on entertainment, and hence, there must be a trade-off. This seemingly-reasonable assumption is not true, but that’s a complex topic for another day.


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