Media issues again
By: Naeem Tahir
There are about 50 plus networks in Pakistan, perhaps more than any country! The owners have the profit motive as the top consideration, as in any other business
A two-member commission has been appointed to look into the various matters relating to the media. One of the members is Mr Javed Jabbar who has had a long association with the media and is a good choice. It is not yet clear if this commission is going to look into the issues related to the entertainment industry and TV channels. If these are not included then it is urgently necessary that these are included. In the last decade, the opening up of electronic media has had positive as well as negative effects on society. The reach of the new crop of networks primarily hits the urban areas and overseas Pakistanis. In other words, it is communicating with comparatively educated, affluent decision-makers.
When cross-media ownership was permitted and the newspaper groups started to own TV networks, these networks yielded huge political influence and enjoyed coercive and blackmailing power. Big business owns the networks. There are about 50 plus networks in Pakistan, perhaps more than any country! The owners have the profit motive as the top consideration, as in any other business. Drawing on a business advertising pool of a small economy, these networks have cutthroat competition so the advertising rates keep going down. This results in more advertisements than the programme content in a given slot. The situation deteriorates further because of the faulty input by ‘rating’ agencies. The rating agencies have set up response measurement systems in a very small number of houses in three or four cities and the popularity index shown by them is the major decision-maker for TV managements and advertisers. The results by the rating agencies are not a true and reliable reflection because of the limited database. In addition, this database reflects the likes and dislikes of only the urban areas. TV networks try to play to the gallery and encourage programmes that increase their ratings and attract more advertisements that become its source of revenue. Since the advertising rates keep going down because of the competition and advertisers’ self-interest, the income stream for the TV network owner is facing challenges. In this situation, the TV programmer serves the owners by playing to the gallery without any scruples. The buying price of entertainment software, like drama, is constantly reduced and the creative artists and software producers are pushed back to basic survival payments, if they are lucky.
However, recently, that ‘luck’ is not with them. The entertainment sections were fascinated by the TV channel URDU 1’s selection of serial Ishq-e-Mamnun. It was dubbed into Urdu, originally produced by a Turkish company. The content was close to The Bold and the Beautiful, an American soap opera, but the faces, being a little more ‘eastern’, helped people to feel an affinity. The actor playing Bahlool became the heartthrob of every woman. Since the combination of good looks and affluence of characters; intriguing family romances; and the risk in ‘forbidden relationships’ made the ideal recipe for the households being measured by the rating agencies, the serial became an all time hit and a ‘role model’ for other networks.
Other networks threw away their scheduled programmes of Pakistani origin and started showing secondhand, imported, dubbed, Turkish productions, particularly if they could find Bahlool in the cast. Therefore, the entertainment fare of the private channels started to resemble the landa bazaar of entertainment. The programmes are ‘second hand’, not communicating Pakistani values or characters. But these cost less. The most serious effect of this policy of private channels is on the local entertainment industry. The producers, actors and technicians are stuck and some companies are near insolvency. The serials produced by local talent are shelved or discontinued. The industry is in shock and if nothing is done quickly, it may face annihilation. Over 100,000 persons of various creative and technical expertises have been laid off.
Their collective associations have knocked on all doors in the government. However, the government is helpless because of the blackmailing power of the networks at this time when elections are around the corner. What is PEMRA doing other than collecting licence fees? Are we going to close our eyes to whatever goes on and see another colossal destruction? Was Pakistani drama not the only competitor to Indian films in the region? Do we realise that we are on the verge of killing our major ambassador of cultural goodwill?
The media commission has a major and extremely important task ahead. It needs to look at the whole policy. The policy of the government to allow so many channels to be formed was wrong. The environment of cutthroat competition is wrong. Relying on the small database of rating agencies is wrong. Insensitivity to the factor of social responsibility of media towards society is wrong. Blackmail through current affairs and news programmes is wrong.
I can continue to list the wrongs as seen by me in my over 50 years of association with the media, but it is something which Mr Jabbar should be looking into at this time. Governments generally set up commissions to cool down protests. The media commission could be a similar tactic but one hopes that the Honourable Chief Justice and Mr Jabbar will ensure that this commission addresses the issues and does it quickly. The terms of reference of the commission must be made public and it should start to address the issues without delay. Delay can only be interpreted as collusion with those who are insensitive to national needs and work for short cuts and short-term advantages at the cost of a huge national sacrifice. I do not have the honour of knowing the other members of the media commission but I hope Mr Jabbar has heard my voice and the sentiments of the large community involved in creativity and struggling to make ends meet.