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Does Indonesia have Quality Television?

By: Ari Ernesto Purnama

That’s right, I am asking myself, you and others who watch, who talk about and who engage themselves with Indonesian television products that straightforward question above. Of course, immediate alarm bells ring when the question of quality is put forth: what do you mean by ‘quality’? and ‘quality’ for who?

For clarity’s sake, in this article I am strictly talking about fictional television shows; from familiar genres such as comedy to drama series. So reality television and  other non-fiction programs such as news and documentaries are obviously out of this range of discussion.

Sinetron, Quality or not?

Before I get into this further by defining what ‘quality’ in television is, let’s pause for a moment and think about what sort of televisual assortments we have been served on Indonesian television from a decade ago until today. Other than the bombastic news programs and celebrity infotainment installments, the phenomenon of sinetron (short for sinema elektronik) has become the staple of TV programming since the mid 1990s. Sinetron has become a super-formula, a template for media executives to generate as much as profit in the shortest amount of time with as little creative effort in its writing, production and aesthetics.

Big hits like Tersanjung or current seasonal Ramadhan-themed programs, sinetron continue to conform to the conventional narrative plotting with superficial thematic exploration and modest if not amateurish visual presentation. So sinetron quickly leaves us wondering if Indonesia  has or indeed ever had ‘quality’ television at all?

Quality, a Question of Taste?

But, isn’t quality just a matter of taste? Let me go back to a somewhat objective definition  ‘quality’ in a narrative medium such as television. Writing on American television, Robert J Thompson—a Professor of Television and Communication at Syracuse University—argues that even though the term ‘quality’ is rather elusive, somehow we know that it is quality when we see it. To say the least, ‘quality television’ is marked by its literary and cinematic ambition (in Quality TV: Contemporary American Television and Beyond, edited by Janet McCabe and Kim Akass, 2007). This means that it shows creativity on every level, all the while keeping television’s limitation as a storytelling medium in mind. Stated this way, quality then is defined more or less by the exploration of narrative complexity [combining episodic plotlines with a serialized narrative structure, or presenting multiple plot threading, for instance], it denotes high production values judging from the style it evokes (elaborate sets, costumes, cinematography and so on), provides deep character psychology and most importantly engaging plot twists and unified story arcs. With strong examples starting from network TV’s Hill Street Blues (1981), Twin Peaks (1991), ER (1994), to cable companies such as HBO’s The Sopranos, The Wire and Six Feet Under, Thompson suggests that American television has definitely stepped up to higher quality, thus claiming this  era to be television’s second golden age, or even the new golden age of American television fictions.

The state of Indonesian TV

Does the same go for Indonesian television? One might argue that the American television industry is fundamentally different from the Indonesian. The industrial circumstances along with the regulatory system that governs the broadcasting world in each respective nation is definitely different. The Indonesian context also brings politics (sometimes nationalistic, sometimes authoritarian) and censorship into play. But this is not to say that there’s nothing we can learn from other nation’s TV development. If we can import American network best-sellers—including those that are regarded Quality TV— like what RCTI did in the early 90s [remember, we had L.A. Law and Ally McBeal shown on our screens in the 90s], or even as early as TVRI with its Japanese NHK’s Oshin series in the late 1980s, how come we have not come up with our own ‘quality’ television? As naïve as it may sound, I think this question is not without historical relevance. If we look at the film industry, Indonesia suffered in the early 90s because there were just not enough ‘quality’ films with our own flavor; what we had were pitiable copycats of Hollywood blockbusters that did not even count as cool tributes to the originals.

My logic tells me that, if we can have literary works and independent filmmakers in Indonesia that attest to the ‘quality’ status, I don’t think it’s too outlandish to have television producers coming up with something brilliant; with ‘quality’ in all senses of the word, without falling into the falsified notion that ‘quality’ should be about moral stories and religious or educational messages. There is so much more to explore when it comes to narrative playing and experimentation.

Quality TV in Indonesia Past Forward?

As a retrospect, Indonesia once had Rumah Masa Depan (House of the future) broadcast by TVRI in the mid 1980s. Created by Ali Shahab, this was a show that had literary ambition. To access such work today, is hard. But I knew when I saw it, that it was somehow evoking a sense of creative narrative crafting, at least one element of ‘quality’ being checked. Irrespective of its heavy morality thematic tone, I see Rumah Masa Depan as one tiny example of what television in Indonesia can do to bring fine-grained, essentially Indonesian stories with honest locales and familiar characters’ traits [the story was set in Cibeureum and the narrative revolves around urbanization and the conflict between city-dwellers and the villagers, and matrimonial conflicts inside the protagonists’ family], contrary to many of today’s sinetrons where a lavish materialistic lifestyle is somehow depicted as representative of Indonesia’s population. Perhaps we should examine this issue of ‘quality’ in Indonesian television fictions and other media productions closer, so we will not go down the path of narrative impoverishment and creative stagnancy that the Indonesian film industry had to endure in the 1990s. It’s never too late to rip it up and start again.