On a recent visit to Rupavahini, I noticed something weird. Apart from the central TV at reception, the others (notably the ones in the makeup division and canteen) were tuned to Sirasa TV. Oblivious to their own channel broadcasts, the employees of Rupavahini were blissfully glued to ‘Minisun Athara Minisek’ – a feature movie from Sirasa TV, with Gamini Fonseka playing the hero.
This speaks volumes about Sirasa TV’s popularity. Use of one’s product by the very employees of main competitor’s is a rare achievement. It is like Pepsi Cola selling more at the canteen of Coca Cola employees.
My congratulations go to Sirasa TV but let that not deviate me from my premonition, that Sirasa TV badly requires a re-strategizing exercise. It is almost overdue.
I am certain Sirasa TV understands the two key components of the Sri Lankan Sinhala audience of the day. I prefer calling them Children of ’56 and ’77 respectively. Not that everyone belongs to these two groups – but they drive all of us from time to time. A little overlap might be possible but mostly they are two distinct forces.
Group No.1: Children of ’56
This is a largely Sinhalese Buddhist (a small percentage of Sinhalese Catholics/Christians) group. They represent the key force that brought the current government into power. They are eager to send their children to Dhamma schools on Sundays. They resist Western culture or anything even vaguely associated with it. They also do not tolerate any deviations from what they term as ‘Sinhalese Buddhist culture’, in reality a Victorian product. One may also call them the ‘local Taliban’.
The post independent history of Lanka records several instances this force became prominent. The most recent one was in 2003, the aftermath of the death of Ven Soma thero, when it was powerful enough to make the reelect ion of an already unpopular government, of course under a different and more nationalistic leadership. This group might be smaller in size, but better not underestimate their strength.
Group No. 2: Children of ‘77
This group is larger in size and includes sections of lower middle class to semi-poor. (‘lower’ in social status, not necessarily income-wise) These have recently beaten poverty, mainly thanks to the socio economic developments in the post ’77 era by the UNP governments of J R Jayawardena and R Premadasa . Many of these families have someone working in Middle East or doing a small business of their own.
Their lives are uncomplicated and they look for simple entertainment. On an average basis their level of education may be lower compared to Group No 1. This is mainly an apolitical group but I am not surprised if majority still votes for the UNP.
Apart from these two groups, there are others but they are too diversified to be treated as a third cluster.
From its inception it was the second group that Sirasa TV focused. It was a wise decision. Both state channels focus on Group 1 so there was a huge vacuum for Sirasa TV to enter. Most of its popular programs (Sirasa Super star, Ran Depeya, Hina Ina, Kageda gee nada, Looks like, Sirasa Dancing Star, feature movies of popular actors/actresses) directly caters to children of 77 who like simple entertainment. Others have unsuccessfully tried capturing portion of its audience, but by default Sirasa TV still rules.
On the other hand, there is no way Sirasa TV can ignore the first group. It would be too risky, both financially and politically. With the anti-govt image it has already earned not catering to the nationalistic audience would be suicidal.
So what Sirasa TV does now it to insert special segments for children of ’56 into its schedule aimed mainly for children of ’77. That is how we hear monthly Buddhists sermons from temple trees, in the same channel that broadcasts bizarre dances of rural teenagers – one of the core items of criticism in such sermons!
No need to say, this antagonises both groups. Who wants to watch something not customized for them?
This largely explains the anti-Sirasa TV feelings of the day. A massive audience enjoys watching Sirasa TV but they are annoyed when some of its programs challenge their hardcoded value systems. The simple solutions of putting off the TV or changing channels are not available because they still want to watch it. (though they may not want to admit) This starts a special ‘love and hate’ relationship with the channel.
That is why I think Sirasa TV needs to re-strategize/re-brand. This is the time to start another Sinhalese channel. (Sorry, I am not fully aware of financials or spectrum issues. I know this can be costly, but no idea how costly) They can be like ‘Palamuveni Sevaya’ and ‘Deveni Sevaya’ of the good ole SLBC. The first had more serious stuff while the second was commercially oriented. It was the second channel most listened to, but still if anybody wanted they had an option of more ‘advanced’ or ‘patriotic’ content. Finally both groups were satisfied.
The danger of Sirasa TV not having a channel for less commercial serious stuff to cater children of 56 is them completely losing the credibility of the station. This, in fact, has already stared happening. That is what makes Sirasa TV the most hated TV channel. A little hostility is inevitable, but if that continues Sirasa TV needs to take it seriously. After all, even Mervin Silva is a prospective audience. There is no need to impose self barriers when expansion is still possible.