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Prime time: Preaching to the converted?

August 04, 2013

Musalmanon tukka lagao! (Take a wild guess, all you Muslims) has been the rallying cry on television during the past few Ramazans. It is raised by a self-styled preacher of sorts and is echoed from channel to channel in myriad ways and guises

Ramazan-themed TV programmes have taken the country by storm during recent years. These programmes air every day throughout the holy month from mid-afternoon to well into the evening with a late retelecast at Sehri time.

The programmes are part kitsch part camp, featuring a series of popular themes including quiz shows, a kids section complete with animals, cooking segment, art competitions, telethons and then a free for all melee of audience Q&A in which doctors, preachers and ex-pop stars dole out gifts from cloth fabrics, shoes and even a car for whom they deem lucky or needy enough to warrant such largess. The programmes usually end with a lucky draw in which a few people from the audience get a chance to win electronic goods, etc. All this in one day, plus appearances from celebrities and plenty of naat and ham’d sessions with the hosts invariably joining in, much to the delight of the fans.

This is no mere passing fad nor is it a new phenomenon. Somewhat similarly, the US has been a popular watering hole for the likes of televangelists Dr. Billy Graham in the ’60s to Ed Young in the contemporary era. They have dominated the religious debate and have been a favourite of the religious right and Republicans.

Reverend Graham was in fact a pastor and advisor to several US presidents and had the ear of the political parties for over five decades. He remains, much like Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra, one of the pillars of old school Americana. Billy’s protégés are firmly entrenched in popular TV and millions across America’s Bible Belt, states across the American mid-West, tune into these programmes on a daily basis.

Back in Pakistan, mostly the chosen venue for the live event is a hotel to accommodate the huge crowd. Once on the set, one feels like s(he) has been transported to mediaeval Arabia with palm trees and camel statues. With a few sand dunes and tents one would think the theme would be complete. The self-styled TV cleric-cum-host is all over the place, and appears resplendent and dapper in a designer kurta with an earpiece firmly in place. The programmes have an Iftar break and end on a high with the host dispensing expensive gifts.

The success factors are easily identifiable. Love them or dislike them, they do put on a good show as they have oodles of what any show needs: charisma. A modern TV cleric is media savvy and enjoys rock-star status. He also has a clear idea of what makes good ratings and has his hands on the nerve of the audience. Questions that can lead to valuable gifts usually go to those who have a narrative, a tale of woe and sorrow.

The host is also quick to spot those who would make for good human-interest stories. As for the sponsors, the economics cannot be any better. Hours and hours of product placement on television and that too on the highest-rated shows during prime time? You don’t need to be a fancy advertising executive to do the math.

At the end of the day, programmes such as these deliver what they promise: religious entertainment with ratings that would make any television producer proud.