A TV channel for children’s reading in India?

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If you thought television could not get bigger in India, it just did! The latest and most comprehensive Broadcast India Survey found that, from 2015 to 2017, access to TV grew 19 per cent (Figure 1). In rural India it grew a whopping 30 per cent, to nearly 100 million TV households. And yet, that accounts for only 54 % of the total rural households with access to TV. There is enormous room for further growth.

Figure 1: Growth of TV access in India

With nearly 800 million TV viewers already, watching three hours of TV every day, India consumes a staggering 2.4 billion hours of TV a day!

TV viewers in India include 160 million children in the 5-14 age group – 86 million in rural and 74 million in urban India. Anyone concerned with children’s education can either complain about TV as a detriment to children’s development, or accept its manifest presence in people’s lives to then find creative ways to leverage the opportunity it also presents.

Currently there are around 800 TV channels in India. Only around fifteen are kids’ channels, all of them dedicated primarily to entertainment. So, is there a place for a children’s channel devoted to edutainment, where the principal driver is ‘edu’? Yes, and the one proposed here tackles a longstanding national failing.

The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2016 found that only 47.8 % children in rural India, in Grade 5, can read a Grade 2 level text. It is as alarming a statistic as it has proven to be intractable, for a least a decade that ASER has measured it. All the collective efforts of the state, and to a much smaller extent the corporate sector and civil society, have not succeeded in raising India’s reading skills. Ironically, here’s where TV, the putative adversary of reading, comes in.

An edutainment channel that is sorely needed in India would be dedicated to reading, and a love for reading. If you can’t get kids off of TV you might as well get them to read off of it.

Some ideas a TV channel devoted to children’s reading could build around are:

1) Show the kind of content produced by Sesame Street, a global pioneer in developing content for pre-schoolers to promote language, literacy, and emotional development, leading to improved school-readiness. See: https://www.sesameworkshopindia.org/research/

This is not new, except for the fact that Sesame content would be on a dedicated children’s edutainment channel (in addition to being on regular channels). Sesame has done admirably to prepare small children for school and instill a love for reading and education. It does not, however, get its viewers to read as an integral part of TV watching, other than occasionally to introduce letters and some early reading concepts.

2) The world over, children love to watch cartoons. The channel focused on reading could show animated stories with the narration appearing on screen as Same Language Subtitles (SLS), or, what you hear is what you read.

But will children read SLS and not just ignore them? Several eye-tracking studies have found that reading along to SLS is “automatic” and “inescapable”. SLS is most effective in songs, nursery rhymes, and children’s stories.

BookBox innovated the ‘AniBook’ concept. It takes stories and existing children’s picture books and turns them into videos with SLS, for large scale electronic distribution on screens, such as, TVs, mobiles, and computers. See: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brij-kothari/bookbox-scaling-childrens_b_9424106.html

In India children’s reading needs to be addressed at mega-scale, in a diversity of languages. India has 22 official languages and 720 dialects, written in 13 scripts! BookBox’s AniBooks, produced in a mix of 40 odd languages have so far clocked 40 million views on YouTube. BookBox content could be shown on TV, as stories on demand or packaged as episodes, in any language. This could potentially deliver a scalable, inescapable, and alternative children’s reading experience on TV, for the 200 million or so school children, nationally. Printed children’s books have so far served only a small fraction of children, in a very small number of languages.

3) Most developed countries commit substantial resources to developing a culture of reading among children, literally from the day they are born. A reading culture, together with a buy-in of its emotional, social and cognitive importance, is weak in India. At the Alliance Française in Pondicherry, I recently asked an audience of about 100 people if their parents had ever read a children’s book to them. A few hands went up, all non-Indian, and not because the audience could not afford books, or could not read, or undervalued the importance of reading. Reading to children, generally, is just not a cultural or social expectation in India, like it is in many developed societies.

Celebrity reading of children’s books on TV, YouTube, radio, etc., is an effective way to promote a culture of reading among children. For instance, the Obamas got into the act as a family https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FE_7T-TQ7WQ.

Programming on the channel where Indian celebrities – cricket and movie stars and other known personalities – read their favorite children’s book or tell a story, would be a powerful way to encourage a parent or adult to child reading, or story-telling culture. Such programming could itself be produced in creative formats to keep the interest alive. How about a reality format, a chase of sorts by children wherein a celebrity is tracked down and who then has to read a favorite children’s book.

These are just some illustrative ideas to buttress the case for a dedicated children’s channel for reading development and advancement. Such a channel would clearly need to remain open to a constant stream of fresh ideas. Where that creativity is sourced from and how, is critical.

Children’s edutainment programming could be crowdsourced from any talent pool that meets the channel’s quality expectations. An independent editorial board, with a fixed term, would do well to develop and revise content selection guidelines, and run open competitions that serve to select quality children’s programming.

Ideally, the edutainment channel would be ad-free. The Companies Act, 2013 in India requires large companies to spend at least 2% of net profits on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF), a body that represents the TV industry in India, is well-placed to take it up as a collective CSR activity.

Every year, the who’s who of the broadcast policy and media and entertainment industry come together for the preeminent FICCI-FRAMES global convention http://www.ficci-frames.com/. We are on the verge of one next week, in Mumbai. If the entertainment industry (e.g., FICCI-FRAMES and IBF) were to expand its mandate to give a fillip to edutainment, with its bottomless well of creativity, power, and reach, it could do wonders to redress national challenges like the abysmal state of low reading skills.

To the entertainment industry – thanks for entertaining India superbly. Please now also help edutain her children, because you have the capacity and creativity to.