In an age where our musicians are breaking new ground globally, our producers winning awards upon awards, and our movies breaking box office records; our televised programming has been reduced to a bunch of screaming news outlets purveying misery and disappointment 24 hours a day.
It has been aeons since local TV delivered good entertainment, so much so that even saying that has become a cliche.
A brief history, if you permit: Our entertainment industry has a knack for surviving. It survived the effects of the Zia Administration (prevalent even today) and it will survive ludicrous game shows and this chasm created by Turkish dramas.
This is not delusion of hope speaking, it is a historical fact. Take Waaris, Fifty-Fifty, Tanhaiyaan, DhoopKinaray, as examples. DhoopKinaray was so iconic that HaseenaMoin was asked to create an official Indian version. The Zia Mohyeddin show used to air across Asia, all the way to Japan. Those were incomparable successes and our benchmarks for quality.
Also read: 'Panellists debate standards of TV dramas'
But of late, the highest rated TV Shows have appeared indistinguishable from others of their genre, e.g. Family Front and Bulbulay - minus the cast - are basically the same show.
The same can be said for the countless soap operas around, popular and unpopular alike. Just look how they treated the sequel to Tanhaiyan. The problem does not attract sufficient attention. Though our industry is not under direct attack from any group (domestic or international). It is a system that is slowly crumbling from within.
Here are three major reasons why:
The first pit-fall is an inescapable global reality. You could be working on your dream project, you may even be the best person for said project, might know exactly how to turn it into the best; but it will not matter because decisions lie with people writing the checks. They may decide to turn the whole project into a farce, but it will be theirs to ruin and you can have no say in the matter. Unfortunately, a vast majority of decisions in TV hail from a lack of appreciation of the creative process and more from service to the bottom line.
That's why you could swap episodes between soap operas and it would make about the same amount of sense, because no matter whom the cast/writers/creators are, the final say comes down to the a handful of people who are convinced that the country needs this the kind of programming.
New govts bring new agendas
The second problem is politics. With any change in Pakistan’s political landscape, everything from personnel to content will adjust to the new regime’s agendas.
Take the decline of the ratings-grabber Tariq Aziz Show, or the growth of sect-specific channels on the air. Private channels retain certain independence, but they are still subject to the first problem.
It is difficult to pinpoint the exact time in our history where TV characters went from expressing genuine human emotions to fluctuating between the extremes of laughter, bawling and just preposterous amounts of staring. This could well be due to commercial risk-aversion and the need to stick to what works, along with the massive appetite for content of a national nature, regardless of its entertainment value.
The “if it worked in India, it should work here” mentality also needs to be reworked, but that is a long discussion and for another time.
For now, let's turn to another pressing issue:
It is laughable. With varying amounts for each channel, the average price per episode is between PKR. 200,000/- to PKR. 600,000/-. That includes costs of sets, props, production, directors, writers, actors, marketing and everything else. This is why production values are so disappointing and talent seems scarce (with a few rare exceptions) because “cheaper” becomes more important than skilled. The few, who are good, have so little to work with that they make a living either in volume (which severely affects quality) or they simply branch out to other industries.
How to fix TV programmes
The solution lies in repairing processes. However, we cannot demand that the revolving-door management policy suddenly stop, or that everyone unanimously change the way they think. That's wishful thinking.
The pragmatic way out of here is for television to begin a gradual return to its experimenting ways and open the doors to more original content.
To take an example from the film industry, take 'Waar'. It had its fair share of flaws, yet it broke box office records. This was because people are hungry for original local content en masse.
Original content brings ratings, ratings bring ad revenue, ad-revenue brings bigger budgets and the wheels keep turning. As a personal plight to aspiring artists, please create as much original content as you can, in your personal capacity and put it out on the internet for the world to admire. Its writing needn’t rival Breaking Bad and production values needn’t surpass Game of Thrones, it just needs to be well-made, with whatever resources you can afford.
This will create a demand for quality and that will force the industry to raise their standards.