Safari TV is a 24-hour Malayalam exploration television channel. It was founded by Kerala-based entrepreneur and globetrotter Santhosh George Kulangara, who is famous for his visual travelogues on Malayalam television.
The channel has reimagined the television program content in a conventional media landscape like Kerala. It’s a unique experiment in a traditional television market like Kerala. The programs focus on travelogues, visual biographies, world movies, history, culture, etc. For most of the television viewers in Kerala, this was a new viewing experience otherwise crowded with outdated and regressive media content.
Safari TV occupies a significant place in the television landscape of the country where vested groups use television for hate speech, religious polarisation, and to expand the business & political interests of a few.
The channel’s hallmark is the program diversity and the relevance of its content in a society like Kerala, which is known for its diverse engagement with progressive socio-political movements. The vibrant presence of literary and political magazines and Malayalam language publishing in general have engaged with Kerala society in varied ways. It is also a media market fuelled by pollical excitement and high literacy.
As pointed out by anthropologist and media scholar Robin Jeffery, increased interest and knowledge of politics are vital to people’s interest in media in Kerala. Safari TV has managed to converse with this tradition through its program style. This has led to the creation of a new television culture in Kerala. It also opened a unique opportunity for viewers who are tired of the overt sensationalism, biased news coverage, and rigid entertainment content that dominates Kerala's media.
The Malayalam entertainment landscape has witnessed rapid changes in the last decade. This was led by the recent changes in the Malayalam film industry. The new generation of cinema has redefined Malayalam cinema’s engagement with Kerala society in multiple ways. Adapting local culture, stories, language, and fresh talent are significant parameters that changed Malayalam cinema in the last decade. These changes have forced many other areas of the entertainment industry to adapt to new standards of programming in Kerala.
Safari TV’s engagement with Malayalam cinema is innovative and gives a fresh look to the film content on Television. One of the distinctiveness of the new generation of Malayalam cinema is its attempt to represent the marginalised narratives generally excluded from mainstream discourses.
Programs related to the cinema are one of the popular segments on Safari TV. However, the content created by Safari is entirely different from how popular television engages with cinema. Movies on Road, Location Hunt, Movie Classic, Charitram Enniloode (History through me), and Charithram Chalachitram (History-Cinema) are major programs focusing on cinema. Most of these programs introduce world cinema and its history to the viewers. Also, programs like Charitram Enniloode provide a biographical account of the most influential personalities associated with Malayalam cinema.
Programs on classic movies are another feature and they discuss movies from different parts of the world in Malayalam.
Charitram Enniloode is a unique attempt to redefine television’s approach to history. The program regularly brings important personalities from all aspects of Kerala’s cultural and political landscape. People who played an important part in Malayalam cinema’s growth trajectory, such as poster designers, scriptwriters, lyricists, producers, and music directors, are regular faces on this program.
The mainstream television rarely features or give space to such diverse voices. For example, the channel aired multiple episodes of Charitram Enniloode with Gayathri Ashokan, who is a leading poster designer in Malayalam cinema with an experience of more than 700 hundred films. The program also featured police officers, politicians, writers, judges, journalists, etc, at various points in time. The storytelling method makes this program hugely popular among television viewers and social media users in the state. Through these programs, Charitram Enniloode has brought out many marginalised narratives otherwise excluded from the mainstream.
Amongst the content, travel exploration programs are the most popular segment on Safari TV. Sancharam (travel) is a visual travelogue program, and it brings the travel experience of Santhosh George Kulangara to the viewers. It has already covered more than 120 countries and various Indian cities. More importantly, Sancharam brings the historical, political, and cultural importance of the places they cover as part of the travelogue to the viewers. This is also in sharp contrast to the innumerable travel related video blogs which do not delve deep into the history or the culture of the place being shown.
Sancharam is also the oldest running visual travelogue on Malayalam television. It started in 2001 on Asianet, the leading Malayalam entertainment channel. Through its focus, Sancharam has attempted to create a fresh discussion about travel amongst its viewers. It has also influenced the travel aspirations of the youth in Kerala.
Oru Sanchariyude Diarykuruipikal (Diary of a Traveller) focuses on the traveller’s experience. The program is structured in a way that the traveller narrates the stories directly to the viewers. A typical episode of Oru Sanchariyude Diarykuruipikal doesn’t have many visuals. Safari also has other travel programs such as Around the World in 30 Minutes and AA Yatrayil (In that Journey), etc.
The channel’s primary focus is to bring various travel experiences to its viewers. Travel stories of famous personalities in Kerala have attracted a lot of attention. It also contributed to creating diversity within the travel stories commonly narrated on television. These programs attracted rural and semi-urban viewers who are not the most common consumers of exploration channels. For a long time, exploration channels were associated with the urban- English speaking population throughout the country. The success of Safari lies in breaking the convention and creating new viewership in the Rural and Semi-urban regions of Kerala.
Safari TV makes another strong statement through its revenue model. The channel doesn’t air any commercial advertisements for revenue. Safari entirely functions with the money that comes from other entrepreneurial ventures of the founder such as publishing and education. This is a new attempt in Kerala where broadcast media is entirely dependent on revenue from advertising.
Since its launch in 2013, Safari TV has never aired any commercial advertainment. In an interview to The Hindu in 2019, Santhosh George Kulangara mentioned that publishing and other activities are his daytime work. He does most of the studio work, such as editing, sound, etc, during the night for Safari TV.
The rapid expansion of digital media across the state has also helped Safari TV circulate its content among the viewers. Especially, its presence on platforms like YouTube attracted a vast viewership for its content among Malayalees across the world. More importantly, the participation and discussion on social media platforms show the popularity of most of the programs on Safari.
Creating a niche viewership is not an easy task when there are many 24-hour television channels and digital media platforms. However, Safari TV has been successful in creating a community of viewers. Programs that constantly engage with this community of viewers script the relevance of Safari TV in Kerala. The diversity of programming, Malayalam language content, and life stories of local personalities, makes Safari TV more acceptable than other popular infotainment channels. Focus on local content is a comparatively new terrain for most infotainment channels in Kerala.
However, a sustained viewing of the program content on Safari TV reveals certain prejudices of its maker vis a vis the portrayal of the Western countries. For example, there is a tendency to glorify everything about the West such as the people, the location, government etc. To such an extent that the commentary can often be moralising to emulate those standards for better living in India while completely bypassing the historical, economic, and political conditions that had prevailed in those countries for centuries.
Safari TV can be perceived as a new entrant in the cultural media space dominated for decades by famous literary and political magazines in Kerala. Safari TV could be an excellent example of how television can redefine its content by focussing on the socio-political and cultural background of the viewers. This can help a television channel to create culturally relevant and inclusive programs for its viewers.
Safari TV can lead the process of redefining television content when television channels are under severe criticism for their blatant political biases and their association with caste and religious fundamentalism. Along the way, hopefully, Safari TV will also learn a lesson or two in its depiction of non-Western locations.
(The writer teaches Media Studies at FLAME University, Pune.)