Mar 23, 2023 Last Updated 2:07 AM, Mar 22, 2023

Consuming Passions

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Amrih Widodo

Thursday evening was a special time for Herlina, a 30 year old white collar worker in Jakarta. For one hour, she had to perform her special ritual: watching her favourite sinetron (Indonesian television drama) Dewi Fortuna (Lady Fortune). She would do anything to see her favourite stars Bella Saphira and Jeremy Thomas on screen. Once, she had to tell her boss that she had serious diarrhoea, to excuse herself from an important company meeting. Another time, at a workshop in a small town in Central Java, she panicked when she realized that her anti-sinetron male colleagues had already monopolised the only television in her small hotel. She decided to drive for five hours to Surabaya to buy her own television set so that she could watch sinetron the following night, so reported Tempo (14/01/2002).

Mrs. Sum, 45, a housewife, runs an all night food stall near the market in Blora, Central Java. Even though her food stall should open at 7.00 p.m, she sometimes remains glued to her favourite sinetron until after 8.30 p.m. She has been addicted to both Indonesian sinetron and Latin American telenovela for over ten years, but prefers telenovela. What annoys her most about sinetron is that the protagonists never age. In contrast, telenovela could cover the life span of two or three generations in a series, ?naturally? following the development of human life. Despite being dispassionate about a couple of sinetron series, Mrs Sum?s daily schedule has revolved around the timetables of television dramas for the past decade.

From her home in Sydney, Mrs. Dewi runs a small business which is also her hobby, or perhaps more precisely her addiction. She is one of the Chinese Indonesian mothers who fled Jakarta after the riot in May 1998, but she has not left sinetron behind. Through a satellite dish in her house, she receives all of the Indonesian television stations. Over 20 thousand Indonesians now live in Sydney, and a good number of them simply have to watch sinetron. A few entrepreneurs have made copies of sinetron episodes and rent them out to their fellow sinetron fans. There are more than five sinetron video rentals in Sydney. The rent is usually US$1.50 per cassette per week - each cassette contains three episodes. Mrs. Dewi's sinetron video rental is not the biggest one; nonetheless, she has about 75 titles with an average of 25 episodes for each title.

Herlina, Mrs. Sum and Mrs. Dewi are representative of millions of Indonesians, especially women, who consume sinetron and structure their lives around their schedules. They have lived through generations of TV drama, from those produced or commissioned by state television when TV drama was popular as much because of the unavailability of alternatives as their quality; to the more commercially driven sinetron, in which popularity is measured by SRI-AC Nielsen rating and advertising revenue achieved by exploiting good-looking stars, intriguing family affairs, tear-jerking love stories, and displays of the glamorous life-styles of the rich. The term sinetron comes from the words sinema (cinema) and elektronik (electronic). After ten years of struggle asserting their existence against imported TV drama, sinetron have become pivotal members of millions of Indonesian families. Daily household chores, family business, official meetings and social events are all often scheduled around the timetables of popular sinetron. For a decade, the popularity of sinetron has served as a backbone for the rapid development of private television in Indonesia. The Mediascape of Sinetron

Prior to the introduction of private television in the late 1980s, state television was a prime site for the construction and circulation of an Indonesian national identity. The state monopolised the electronic mediascape, and the Palapa satellite vastly expanded its national audience. In his book, Television, Nation and Culture in Indonesia, Philip Kitley writes that the state television station, TVRI, through news-as-ritual and pre-sinetron ideological family dramas, was able to address its audience as a public and national family.

The introduction of commercial television in 1988 did not result in a paradigm shift towards more democratic or even market-driven media. The Suharto regime maintained its monopoly over Indonesian television through nepotism in issuing private television licenses. However, the state can no longer monopolise the political and cultural sphere, and television is now ratings driven. New licenses were issued after Suharto?s resignation and in 2001-2002 four new private television broadcasters entered the market. Except for Metro TV, which like CNN specializes in news, all nine private and the two state broadcasters rely on entertainment for about 75 percent of their programming. One of the main elements of this are sinetron.

Private television depends on advertisements. The expansion of the Indonesian economy since the late 1980s has made television financially possible. Television reaps 62 per cent of media advertising expenditure in Indonesia, followed by print media with 33 per cent (Gatra 10/11/2001). Total national advertising expenditure doubled from Rp. 639 million between 1990-1993, after private channels were made available nationally, and skyrocketed tenfold in a decade to Rp. 9.7 billion in 2001. Despite a dip for the economic crisis, advertising revenue is predicted to reach Rp. 12,2 billion in 2002. Private television channel RCTI, owned by Suharto?s son Bambang Trihatmojo, dominated the race for advertising revenue for a decade, however a 2000 AC Nielson Indonesia report showed that Indosiar, owned by Chinese tycoon Lim Sioe Liong, has surpassed RCTI. New television operators have learned that advertising does not go with channels, instead with high rating programs. The localized version of Family Feud, Famili 100, and the sinetron Si Doel Anak Sekolahan (Doel, the Uni Student) have proven this: both moved to Indosiar without losing ratings, and maintained their advertising revenue. The fight is now on to produce or pirate high-rating programs. Newcomers see a chance to win the race for advertising revenue, or at least secure a viable segmented market.

Imagining Sinetron Audiences

Sinetron, meanwhile, have been almost invulnerable to Indonesia?s recent economic crisis and political turmoil. Sinetron?s expensive production costs (Rp. 90 ? 125 million per episode) did cause a 40 per cent decline in their production by late 1998. However, ratings remained solid.

The Indonesian TV drama industry started to flourish early in 1990s in response to the emergence of private television stations and the death of film industry. As television imports grew, only 12 films were produced by mid 1992, compared to 118 the previous year. Most film companies converted to production houses to service the high demand for local content to fill broadcast hours. One of those film companies was PT Parkit Film, owned by Raam Punjabi, an Indonesian of Indian descent, whose production house PT Tripar Multivision now dominates sinetron production. Smaller production houses and sinetron critics have resented the domination by Punjabi?s company, particularly his strategy of booking prime time slots, making exclusive contracts with popular stars, and producing a massive number of sinetron based on proven, conventional formulas - love stories, tears, domestic affairs, and popular stars (Tempo 14/01/2001). Punjabi controls an estimated 40 per cent of sinetron production in Indonesia, and during prime time, all the five channels broadcast similar sinetron. Indonesian viewers are bombarded by images of modernity manifested in the life-styles and environs of the rich.

Massive production of sinetron has also hampered creativity and variation of theme, scenario, and story lines. Many almost literally copy imported TV drama from India and Latin America, which became popular when dubbing replaced subtitles. To make sure that the appeal of Indian TV drama was transferred to Indonesian sinetron, Raam Punjabi hired the Indian TV drama director Vasant R. Pathel to direct Tersanjung, Indonesia?s longest running sinetron (Rakyat Merdeka 28/07/2000). A script writer for one of the big companies informed me that he was often given a series of Indian TV drama to watch and simply copy the story.

Only a decade old, Indonesian TV drama is still at an early stage. Audience taste is still volatile. Many production houses and television channels do not want to risk broadcasting sinetron that differ from those with high ratings. Copying previously popular, locally made and imported series is common. Consequently, Indonesian TV drama is produced merely with commercial considerations, at the expense of quality. However, several imported programs with high production values, such as the X-Files and similar American series, have low ratings but brim with advertisements. Harsiwi Achmad, Planning and Development Manager at SCTV explained, ?Because the audience is from Class A [middle and upper class] ... the advertisements are for products targeted for this class A.?

Putu Wijaya, one of the most prolific Indonesian writers who has produced, directed and written more than 50 sinetron titles, explained how production thinks about the audience. Television channels and production houses classify Indonesian viewers into two categories. Class A consists of middle and upper-class families, while Class B comprises middle and lower-class families. Even though Putu Wijaya himself sometimes dismissed this classification as being arbitrary and inconsistent, he explained that it has been a useful tool for television and sinetron workers to imagine their target audience. When an order for a sinetron series specifies that it is for Class B, Putu Wijaya will have in mind an audience of maids, housewives, drivers, food vendors, low-level civil servants, and other blue-collar workers. Class A, meanwhile, would include professionals, university students, high ranking bureaucrats, upper-scaled entrepreneurs, and journalists. Class B viewers are considered uninterested in long dialogues or discussions of difficult concepts. Instead, they are stimulated by action, more susceptible to manipulation of emotions, and keen for black-and-white morality. According to Putu Wijaya, sinetron for a Class B audience often relies on straightforwardness at the expense of narrative and reflective aspects. In practice, this means linear plotting (very few flash-backs, no multiple framing); stereotypical characterizations visually demonstrated through body parts, mimics, gestures and outfits; exaggeration of events or characters to demonstrate extreme emotional expressions, and conflicts on very concrete domestic issues between family members or among individuals within a given social setting. A Class A audience, on the other hand, is imagined as more educated and receptive to longer discussions on conceptual matters, more critical of logical representation of reality, able to understand complex plotting, tolerant of less clear-cut problem solutions, and appreciative of artistic creations. When he receives an order for a Class A audience, Putu Wijaya feels freer to express his aesthetic creativity.

Sinetron workers often assume that Class B audiences will not critically scrutinise a story?s logic. They are felt to regard sinetron as ?tontonan?, spectacles for entertainment, which need not necessarily represent ?reality?. In defence of his ?unrealistic? sinetron, Punjabi claims, ?I am not a merchandiser of dreams, instead, of wishes. Everyone longs for a comfortable life.? Convinced that the poor must be tired of poverty, he chooses to display beautiful stars, nice houses, luxurious cars, and glamorous lifestyles (Suara Pembaruan 09/05/2002). He claims that his sinetron are popular because viewers are able to identify themselves with characters and situations in the sinetron. Viewers of Punjabi?s sinetron must identify with a ?reality? different from the social reality in which they live. Sinetron are perceived as a medium to display modernity and for viewers to engage themselves in substitutional activities to give their lives a middle-class ?touch?. But why are they content for their consumption to stop at the symbolic stage?

Sinetron Consumption and Life styling

Sinetron content is relatively immune to political and social changes in Indonesia. Indeed, sinetron have served as a medium for Indonesia?s ?new middle class? to symbolically establish and maintain self-identity and group membership. Solvey Gerke calls this symbolic consumption ?life styling?, where membership of the middle class is not necessarily determined by income, but through the display of certain commodities imagined as signifying modernity and urban middle-class lifestyle. Gossip about the most recent twist-and-turns of plots in sinetron as well as the affairs of the actresses and actors which can be followed through ET-like television programs and inexpensive tabloids like Nova, Cek & Ricek, X-pose and Sinetron enable the members of even cukupan families (those who have enough, but are not rich) to participate in such cultural practices.

Putu Wijaya explains that most sinetron workers, himself included, tend to avoid discussing politics in their cultural products. In the euphoria of freedom for political discourse in mass media, sinetron has isolated itself from incorporating social and political reality into their themes. Keywords prevalently used in contemporary Indonesian politics such as democracy, civil society, general election, individual rights and political reform are almost totally absent in current Indonesian TV drama. Censorship by the New Order cultural regime has been replaced by the media regime of advertisement and ratings.

Various feminists have criticised sinetron for its stereotypical portrayal of women as passive, inexpressive and dependent mothers. A closer textual investigation of sinetron, however, reveals a different aspect of the role and position of women. Most sinetron have a female protagonist from a small town thrown into a big city having to deal with the complexity and conundrum of modern life. The female protagonist is usually contrasted with a female antagonist, commonly manifested in the relationship between daughter-in-law versus mother-in-law, country girl versus modern city girl, orphaned girl versus dominating aunt, and other similar familial relations. The aim is to highlight extreme binary contrasts between country, poor, uncultured, simple, domestic, and traditional versus city, rich, cultured, sophisticated, career-oriented, and modern. The protagonist becomes a role model idealized as the bearer of moral values of simplicity, fidelity, honesty, dignity, loyalty and piety amidst the corrupt consequences of modernity. She has to endure a series of struggles and hardships and resist temptations to compromise her virtuous principles, often through humiliating and violent tear-jerking mistreatment, to emerge victorious.

It is this moral victory that appeals to sinetron viewers. For Mrs. Sum and her friends in Blora, the pleasure of watching sinetron comes from the relief and satisfaction in seeing their protagonist emerge from her sufferings and struggles, which remind them of their own struggles as women. They are also relieved that moral values win over material goods and luxurious lifestyles that they can never achieve.

The female characters who represent such moral virtues often have non-Eurasian physical features. The central female characters in both Tersanjung and Camelia have dark complexions, long straight black hair, exotic subdued faces, soft voices and enigmatic and inscrutable characters. They represent a statement of endurance against modernity manifested in bodily glamorous beauty, materialism and consumption.

In a time of crisis, sinetron maintain continuity. For middle-upper class families, similar to shopping, dining in prestigious restaurants, and wearing clothes and accessories with famous brands, watching sinetron maintain their membership of a now much smaller social group, without the expense. For lower class families, watching sinetron provides for symbolic consumption and strengthens the moral values they adhere to. For the diaspora in Sydney, sinetron provides a link to the homeland.

Amrih Widodo ( is a lecturer in the Faculty of Asian Studies at the Australian National University

Inside Indonesia 72: Oct - Dec 2002

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