The number of FM radio stations and TV channels in Ethiopia transmitted via the satellite has increased in recent years. For outsiders who are unfamiliar with the media's contents, they may think that abundance has brought diversity. However, the reality on the ground is different. The program formats of most entertainment outlets are more or less similar. The content that the media houses offer to their audience remains to be almost a copy of the other.
In particular, the swiftly expanding media shares one thing in common. That is an excess of celebrity-related content, mostly related to music, sports, celebrity gossip and other trivial issues.
The morning sessions of the weekdays are high times for FM stations, where sports programs almost entirely dominated by European football are broadcasted. The self-acclaimed analysts take on the airwaves thanks to their generous sponsors and advertisers. One cannot stop but wonder longing for the day that the country will have analysts knowledgeable enough to reflect on urgent issues like the forex crunch, lack of good governance or population overflow.
When the turn of the afternoon session approaches, the airwaves are conquered by disk jockeys (DJs) and other hosts whose business is trite topics. The same applies to the TV stations, except that they keep abusing their audience with continuous, and at times non-stop video clips that are subject to senseless repetition. Such trends reach their climax during weekends.
I doubt media houses conduct proper care while selecting the music they air. I sometimes have the feeling that what worries those in charge of contents the most is filling the airtime. I have come across several occasions where pop songs that contain swear words are played for the general public. Most of us have been treated to music that demeans women, encourages an extravagant living style as a way of life and normalises drug usage.
I am well aware that in the United States (US) and other places songs which contain these types of contents go through some kind of 'therapy' while offered to the public. They are radio edited. But here I wonder how many of the radio jockeys give due attention to such issues.
The TV stations are no better in this regard. Significant numbers of music clips, local as well as foreign, are very difficult to condone. They are contrary to the cultures of the conservative society that consumes the content. Some music clips contain inappropriate types of dancing, which I find extremely offending to watch with family members. Moreover, they often do not reflect the reality on the ground. They idolise materials depicting expensive houses, cars, costumes and jewellery.
The entertainment overdose is swiftly expanding to several fronts, even journalism. It is not common to see individuals team up (often man and woman) based on their prior working relationship in a movie or TV serial drama. Few weeks prior to their target holiday, they knock on doors of companies they believe are potential advertisers and sponsors.
Once they secure some money, they buy airtime mostly in the newly flourishing TV channels and sometimes on the FM stations. Then it is time to bother the audience with a tired program format, where they gather their celebrity colleagues and, in some cases, guests to please their sponsors and the current political heat wave. It seems that the similarity and repetition of the guests that appear in the various programs during holiday seasons are prescribed by a physician for the well-being of the general public. It gives the impression that the country is devoid of highly celebrated individuals in other sectors other than the celebrity industry.
Whatever the case, however, this new trend, in my view, seems to be a shortcut not only to accumulate wealth but also to cheap popularity. The trend is also overshadowing the role of professional journalists due to the overwhelming presence of celebrities in the production of program contents. I can predict with certainty that such a trend will duplicate itself in the upcoming public as well as on religious holidays.
Another manifestation of the entertainment and celebrity overdose are the endless TV serials. Probably with a few exceptions, most of them are filled with annoying characters and themes. I sometimes cannot get what these dramas are trying to convey to the audience. Nonetheless, these soap-operas play for a large number of episodes. The reason for this is that the second serial dramas get the attention of the public, then they easily become a fertile ground for attracting advertisers and sponsors. This tempts producers not to finalize the serial dramas quickly and continue with unrelated, irrelevant and dreary chains of stories.
One does not need to be a genius to understand why the entertainment and celebrity overdose is highly rampant these days. In my opinion, the reasons are self-evident. Content is not being prepared with enough enthusiasm. Thanks to the Internet, stories are readily available on the web. The explosion of social media (mainly Facebook) has further smoothed content production. Furthermore, the platform has made it simpler to grasp which stories are popular and can attract audiences.
Another reason is that the quality of the scripts, sound mixing, editing or other effects like story production that require serious journalistic skills are not worries to most entertainment programs, especially those on FM stations. Programs are often aired live as if it was just friends chatting in a Café. Factual errors are not uncommon.
Advocates of the status quo argue that content should be geared strictly in the public's dictum, as it is now. I do not buy such arguments, primarily for two reasons. Firstly, if media houses dare to come up with original and appropriately sourced and presented content, the audience's interest towards such materials will grow. Secondly, the media should lead instead of being led. Responding mainly to the market demand rather than focusing on serious topics, in my view, is a disservice to the highly respected profession of journalism.
In a country like Ethiopia, where people are starved of objective facts, such types of content are paradoxical. I am not prescribing propaganda-oriented or senseless programs either. They have been tested for years. They do not work. We have to find a middle ground. We, as a society, should no longer allow the entertainment and celebrity-driven content to suffocate the airwaves. Society willingly being exposed to a barrage of these contents is not a healthy sign. The obsession should be redirected towards fruitful areas.
I and others who share my view are tired of TV and radio programs swarmed by entertainment and celebrities. We need to be presented with role models in other professions as well. We are eager to watch and listen to the experiences of teachers, farmers, soldiers, journalists, engineers, physicians, lawyers and many others. The media houses have to unchain themselves from celebrity and entertainment fixation.
Children and the youth should not grow up forced to worship celebrity cults by echoing the acts of singers, models and movie stars as if these are the only options in life. The kids and teenagers should also be enlightened by the media so that they will have aspirations to become accomplished scientists, accountants, managers, researchers, technicians or politicians.
I am not totally against entertainment and celebrities. My concern is the obsession and the huge proportion of airtime dedicated to them. I do not think the country can afford the trend at the expense of other urgent and crucial issues. I aspire to enjoy a vibrant media industry not only routinely engaged in reporting court cases of corruption. Rather, I dream of experiencing media establishments that take the leading role in unravelling corruption by themselves. I think the public deserves to celebrate media outlets that are very critical and do not refrain from uncovering malpractices and abuse of power.
I do not want to understate the various media houses and media personalities who are striving to enlighten their readers and audiences working under difficult circumstances. Their courage to serve the public with unwavering commitment and professionalism deserves sincere appreciation. I very much hope that there will come a time when their dedication and persistence in advancing the cause and concerns of the Ethiopian people will transcend from one generation to the other and be celebrated.
As a citizen who is very much concerned about the media industry, I aspire to see media outlets overwhelmed by issues of, amongst other things, human rights, free press, health, environment, nature, indigenous knowledge, history, culture and art. I dream for the country to have media houses ruled by professionalism and integrity. We should no longer allow our society to become desensitised about its own issues and obsessed by concerns overseas. Enough is enough.
Sileshi Yilma (Sileshiyilma@gmail.com) Is a Writer On Politics, Media and Communication