Alert Sign Dear reader, online ads enable us to deliver the journalism you value. Please support us by taking a moment to turn off Adblock on

Alert Sign Dear reader, please upgrade to the latest version of IE to have a better reading experience


Do we know what we’re doing?


Your Name:

Recipient Email:

WAS it a raid on the movement of unsuspecting young couples or a scripted affair involving paid actors? More hinges on that question than, perhaps, the show’s host and the channel on which the episode aired realise.

First, a recap.

Towards the end of January, a private national television network aired an episode of a morning show: flanked by some upper-class ladies, the host swooped down on couples strolling in a park and asked them questions such as ‘do your parents know where you are?’ or ‘how are you related to each other?’ Some couples tried to run away, or turn their faces, or simply wished the ground would swallow them up.

Others tried to speak up for their rights but were silenced by the barrage of accusations parading as questions, targeted for the ‘crime’ of strolling in a park — not breaking any sort of law, just strolling.

The footage earned itself all sorts of criticism, beginning with the rights of adults to stroll where they want, passing through their constitutional right to privacy, and going on to the inappropriateness of the media acting as a morality brigade and the dangers inherent in the idea of ‘vigil-aunties’ (not coined by me).

The host issued a somewhat weak apology, the channel issued an apology and terminated the employment of the lady in question, and the fast-changing media landscape of Pakistan moved on.

But we wouldn’t be Pakistanis if we didn’t have a penchant for making the bad worse. At the end of February, the lady appeared on a talk show and explained that in fact the ‘dating couples’ in the park had been paid actors. Moreover, she said, many in Pakistan’s television industry were in the practice of using actors to ‘recreate’ situations and scenes.

We have no way of knowing which version is true until some of the alleged actors come forward to verify the anchor’s claim. But if her more recent admission is true, then that brings up equally serious issues of rights and responsibilities.

One assumes that the lady believed that this revelation would shield her from criticism. But in terms of ethics and the credibility of the media, this admission just makes matters worse. It amounts to a confession that the anchor and whoever knew of the scripted nature of the scenes, such as the editors and possibly the channel management, was involved in hoaxing the audience.

And if this practice is thought of as a legitimate television ‘format’ in Pakistan, that casts serious doubts about whether the television industry knows what it is doing.

Scripted scenes that look live or real are far from unknown in television industries anywhere in the world. One way in which this format is used is that of ‘dramatic’ or ‘historical re-enactments’. This involves actors being shot in scenes meant to recreate a portion of history, a crime, a real-life event, or whatever. Documentaries are full of re-enactments. So are crime shows and those about social issues or many others.

The difference is, such scenes always say very clearly that they are a re-enactment, not the real thing. Watching a recreation of Julius Caesar’s conquests, the viewer is made aware of the fact that he is watching a dramatised re-enactment; there didn’t just happen to be a camera present at the scene. That a scene showing a man beating his wife in a show meant to highlight domestic violence was not shot with a hidden camera, the programme is at pains to tell you. Most producers run not just a strip on the screen saying that this is a re-enactment, but often also repeat this fact before or after the scene is broadcast.

Another format that blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, with elements from both, is ‘reality TV’. However, this, too, is significantly different from scripted scenes masquerading as reality.

‘Reality TV’, whether The Apprentice, Big Brother or Survivor, features ordinary people — non-actors working without scripts.

What you see is real, arguments, emotions and rivalries. But this format has set ‘rules of the game’ within which the non-actors operate.

The parameters of the programme are clear, the audience knows that the deal is and most importantly, the featured contestants are, aware of the fact that they are being filmed and thus, in a way, play to the camera. That scene of venom-spitting anger contains real emotion, but the person displaying it is aware of where he is and what he’s doing — as does the audience. In no way can it be likened to real people being secretly filmed, or scripted scenes pretending to be real.

A third relevant variation is what is often used in crime shows in particular. The suspect, face digitally obscured, runs; the law (and the camera, one assumes), chases.

In fact, except in rare cases where the law is actually being accompanied by a filming crew, this is not the case. Sometimes CCTV footage is used, and it is clearly stated that this is the case with all the relevant disclaimers. More often, it is a dramatised re-enactment and this too is made clear.

Why is it important for a programme to make its credentials etc. clear to the audience? Because credibility is at stake. If scripted scenes are used to stand in for real footage, then consider this scenario: the news channels are broadcasting footage of a man accusing hospital staff of having let his child die through negligence. How can the audience be sure it’s real? A group of criminals have apparently been caught in the act of cleaning out a house. Is that a scoop, or is it cheating?

I have a number of friends in the news and entertainment television industry and they tell me that the ‘format’ exposed by the Karachi park episode is in fact not so rare after all. There have been cases where actors are signed up to play the part of outraged anchors or journalists exposing wrongdoings and social issues. I personally know a professional actor engaged in a large news channel in this capacity.

Does our industry know what it is doing and the implications? It’s time to make the rules clear and stop cheating the audience.

The writer is a member of staff.

DAWN_VIDEO - /1029551/DAWN-RM-1x1

LARGE_RECTANGLE_BOTTOM - /1029551/Dawn_ASA_Unit_670x280

Comments (14) Closed

Sara Khan Mar 05, 2012 11:57am
Stop this non sense, hasnt she had enough, I mean we are all wrong at times, leave her alone, she has gotten so much coverage. Doesnt our media have better stories than this Maya
Muhammad Farooq Mar 05, 2012 12:09pm
It is hard to believe Maya Khan's version of the show. If it is true it is a reflection on credibility of these mushrooming tv channels.
EQ8Rhomes Mar 05, 2012 01:10pm
Thank you Hajrah Mumtaz. The Puritans in NEW ENGLAND failed with their Religious police by 1693! Pakistan has quite a few centuries to go yet.
M. Anwar Qureshi Mar 05, 2012 02:19pm
No need to raise further hue and cry; enough is enough; entertainment is an entertainment; forget all these time wasting stories...
Shankar Mar 05, 2012 02:52pm
Glad you brought this up. Somewhere along the way, the TV men have lost their script. In their hunger for eye-balls they go to ridiculous limits to whip up emotions. When questioned, the standard rhetoric is " don't shoot the messenger". Quite a lot of debates in India which have participation from Pakistan usually make me squirm. Do the TV anchors really care if the two countries lived peacefully or went to war, as long as they get their eye-balls? Self regulation in the media is just not working.
atiq Mar 05, 2012 04:24pm
i agree with the writer,there should be code of conduct for the media persons,,wherby the privacy if individuals is not made fun of. I beleive there are so many imp topics other than such fantasies
G.A. Mar 05, 2012 06:51pm
Paid actors?? They can't get actors to perform as good, with direction, in drama serials and she is telling us these couples were acting? Maya Khan is trying to cover up her 'Talibanesque' blunder and this admission has made it worse for her. There is a saying: it's better to keep your mouth shut and let everyone THINK that you're a fool than to open it and PROVE that you are.
aatif ehsan Mar 05, 2012 11:26pm
to inform, to entertain, to educate are the primary functions of journalism...its not a foul play...lets stay honest with ourselves and our audience!
Pirzado Azhar ayaz Mar 06, 2012 04:15am
Very good write-up. This is indeed an important matter and needs to be discussed in appropriate manner and at appropriate channels. Media has to show maturity in their business involving individual rights. Their credibility has to be questioned and corrected wherever necessary. Hajrah Mumtaz has discussed well the revealation of Maya Khan and has informed us on the subject. Welldone Miss Hanjrah!
Saamia Mar 06, 2012 08:12am
The lady had no right to question those people...who is she ? their mother ? Who gave her the right to ask them what they are doing in the park and how they are related to the person they are with ? If I were in that park and had been questioned by her in that manner I would have given her a peace of my mind ! It sure did not look like " actors acting ". Its probably just a cover up for what she was not suppose to do . Arent there other issues in the country that need to be dealt with than what two people are doing in a park or why they are there in the first place ? Maybe someone should have checked on their children to see what they were upto when these ladies were out marching in the park as if they owned the place !
BShah Mar 06, 2012 12:36pm
I disagree. Reality TV programming is 80 percent scripted. Not only that but most of its actor are paid. There have been numerous documentaries unmasking this 'reality.' In fact majority of what is seen on television is pre rehearsed and not impromptu. I write this not to defend Maya Khan but to point to the fact that scripted television, which deceives spectators, is not confined to Pakistan.
B.S. Mar 06, 2012 12:42pm
I disagree.
Hamish Mar 06, 2012 07:36pm
The issue is being seen by the eyes of youth. Sympathies are with the 'offended' couples. Many mothers of young girls in Karachi may not borrow our views; to them Maya wasn't doing as bad as it's being commented on her. In our part of the world mother still enjoys the right to know the location of their daughters and of course whom they are with. Only few girls in Karachi could have admitted to their moms they were on a date. To me the Show was an instant of bad production.
Charlie Mar 13, 2012 03:54pm
I think women in the park has no right to question people in that sense , she can not cover it up by saying "paid actors " and I say that what ever you do do not cover it up at all.