Care for mankind can be good TV

Here is a vision of a future disaster for the humanitarian world 10 years down the road: The digital age in full swing has revolutionized what used to be known as watching television and has led to an increased segmentation and fragmentation of programming.

The decline in what one leading British radio presenter calls the broadcasters' understanding of their "wider responsibilities" has continued and is, apart from a few last pockets of resistance in underfunded public programming, all but a memory.

Technology and the market have lifted from the average family slumped in front of the glowing screen the unpleasant and awkward obligation of being confronted with images of disasters from far-off countries. The "give them what they want" broadcasters will have dispensed with the "tell them what they should know" side.

Heart-rending pictures of humanitarian disasters will have been corralled off into a small, seldom-visited, easily avoided corner of the screen. No one need feel guilty anymore.

While this scenario is not so far-fetched, from my vantage working for a major humanitarian agency, I don't think we need be too pessimistic. While presenting new challenges, the digital revolution may just help those charged with getting a humanitarian message broadcast to living rooms in the West. Likewise, victims of conflict and disaster in the developing world are likely to reap the benefits of a parallel revolution in radio. (Digital short-wave transmitters - which should bring a new lease of life to short-wave broadcasts - are expected to be tested later this year, giving greater access to vital information.)

But getting a humanitarian message across to the general public in the developed world is going to mean a whole lot more work than it does right now.

The first decades of broadcasting were dominated by the notion of public service; a noble, patrician idea that saw TV and radio as a way of informing and educating the public with entertainment as a sweetener to keep it tuned in. Commercial television competed on largely the same turf. News and current affairs were broadcast at peak times and were seen as flagship programs that helped to establish channel identity.

Under the public-service ethos, covering humanitarian affairs was considered an obligation, of sorts.

All that is likely to change in the digital age. Television executives expect that public service to a mass audience is an approach with a very limited shelf life.

When given a choice, most people choose entertainment over education, and choice will be the defining word of the digital age.

Already in Europe some commercial entertainment channels have only a cursory news bulletin or none at all. With dozens of digital channels to choose from, viewers will channel surf more and have less loyalty to a specific channel.

The upside of this segmentation - especially for humanitarian issues - is that there will be more specialized programming, albeit to a smaller audience. Twenty-four-hour rolling news programs are likely to devote more time to covering news from the developing world, even if it is through the cheapest means possible - by phone interview.

In that sort of media scene, how will humanitarian agencies be able to reach out and elicit a response beyond news junkies and those inclined to watch specialized programs? Should these agencies even expect to be able to inform the general public in the future, or should the focus be limited to the so-called opinionmakers?

If it's the latter, it could be quite a loss. For instance, the successful campaign to ban antipersonnel land mines, in which many international humanitarian organizations played roles, was spurred on by the force of public opinion.

But how, and through what media, would that force be mobilized in the future? These are questions the humanitarian world will have to face quickly.

The humanitarian world does have some strong cards to play, and the new technology may present some new and potentially exciting opportunities. Public-service broadcasting may well wither away, but it won't be totally replaced by "lowest common denominator" programs driven solely by profit. There will still be a public interest in quality television from far-off places.

Digital technology will enable program makers to have a much clearer idea of what people actually want to watch rather than broadcasters think they want to watch.

At the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), we are convinced that there is a market out there of people deeply interested in hearing about the lives of other people in remote parts of the world.

Most of our field officers coming back from missions to faraway places will confirm their friends and relatives are much more interested in hearing about the lives and thoughts of the people they were helping, than hearing how many blankets were delivered and the problems that the ICRC had in getting them there.

The strong point humanitarian agencies have in their favor is their closeness to real lives, real stories. That's what "sells." And there will always be a market for well-told stories of real people, because there'll always be a public interest.

* Chris Bowers is the senior editor at the Geneva headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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