TV content is determined by revenues, ratings and is bogged down by a lack of creativity; can the small screen be salvaged?

Lost glory: Can TV plays make a comeback?

TV dramas are getting worse but there are ways to revive creativity in the industry

By Maleeha Hamid Siddiqui

The promos look promising; the sound tracks are melodious to listen to; press releases claim that this is a different serial. And here is what we get to watch: an attractive, vivacious young girl has set her heart on a good-looking, diligent, young man. They are cousins / neighbours but have hardly interacted with each other before. And as fate would have it they are not destined for each other. At least not initially.

A couple of episodes later the girl ends up marrying a good-for-nothing loafer. She puts up with his shenanigans, including his verbal and physical abuse, uttering cringe-worthy lines: “Maine toh ab sochna chor diya hai” (I have stopped thinking now). During the last set of episodes, she is divorced and it is the end of this world for her until she is rescued by a knight in shining armour in the form of her ex-lover.

In another ‘different’ serial aired on prime time, the protagonist is a young, spunky woman. Expectedly, she has a suitor with picture-perfect looks. The creepy suitor is an obsessive lover and stalker. She rebuffs his advances; the stalker-hero slaps her, even kidnaps her and after many twists and turns the couple end up getting married!

TV landscape is littered with cookie-cutter serials in which the only aim of the female lead character is to get married. Once she has achieved her aim she will endure verbal abuse from a mother-in-law from hell and ill treatment at the hands of her stalker husband. Eventually she is rescued by an ex-lover, who due to misunderstandings had drifted away, and all is well.

When I asked a TV drama-loving friend what serials he could recommend for my weekend TV bingeing he said he had lost interest in them some time ago because they had become unwatchable. Blogger Kanwal Murtaza often laments about the quality of dramas in her posts: “Our dramas are hitting an all-time low and our channels have no qualms showcasing such rubbish.”

Reviewers are also severe in their criticisms, finding major flaws in storyline, direction, acting and dialogues. “While surfing channels, it appears the only criteria to become an actor is good looks and nothing else. Expressing emotions through facial expressions have gone out of the window. The actors are wooden, second-unit directors are directing serials and, most importantly, there is no story. Making a drama is the easiest thing to do, it seems. Just get two young actors, hire a cameraperson and voila you have a drama,” Omair Alavi bluntly tells me.

Up until three years ago private TV channels were airing some of the most memorable dramas in recent times. Humsafar, Dastaan, Mera Saaein, Meri Zaat Zarra-e-Benishan, Bari Aapa, Durr-e-Shehwar, Shehr-e-Zaat, Annie ki Ayegi Baraat, Zindagi Gulzar Hai, Maat, Kankar, Rihaii, Bol Meri Machli, Bilquees Kaur, Pyare Afzal and Ullo Baraye Farokht Naheen are some of the names that immediately come to one’s mind. Each one of them had riveting storylines, powerful scripts, memorable acting and strong direction. Viewers who had earlier switched their allegiance to Indian soap operas were compelled to watch local dramas because they had become immensely watchable.


TV dramas need strong narratives

There is a dearth of ideas and television has lost its mojo, it seems. Is the writer to be blamed for this mess? Perhaps good dramas are being shown but are getting lost in the clutter.

I asked actor and director Rubina Ashraf who has seen all phases of TV dramas in both public and private sector. “On average, I read three scripts a day. The stories more or less revolve around a girl’s marriage or are saas-bahu sagas. And it’s been a while since I read a compelling script. I wouldn’t blame the writer for this. The onus lies on the channel head and the content in-charge.” Explaining further, she says the writer furnishes a script commissioned by people at the top.

Additionally, there is so much drama being shown that somewhere good plays are lost, she says. Citing the example of Mahwish Hayat and Humayun Saeed starrer Dil Lagi, which is currently on air on ARY Digital, she finds it is not run-of-the-mill, well-written with good performances. However, she, too, laments that such plays are too few and far between.

I tell her that another possible reason for decline could be the TV industry jumping on the bandwagon of films. It seems that I touched a nerve, as she asserts: “Drama is being wrecked at the cost of films. Films here cannot have the longevity like in India. Films are a momentary diversion and ultimately the TV fraternity will have to return to TV. It will always be around. You cannot wish it away. At 8pm people will tune in no matter what.”

The discussion veered towards the current crop of films mostly made by TV industry folks with only one film Jawani Phir Naheen Aani living up to her expectations. For Ashraf, who clearly indicated that she is not anti-cinema, at the end of the day whatever the medium is, ultimately, it is the storyline that will pull her or the viewers towards the screen, small or big.


TV criticism has disappeared

Ashraf also singled out journalists for failing to seriously critique TV dramas; as a result channels churn out whatever content they like. “Journalists have stopped playing their role. Back in the days of PTV we would be petrified of critics and their reviews. There would be critical analysis of content and performances. Merely writing about the storyline and cast of the play does not constitute TV criticism, as is now the trend. Journalists have to point out if we are doing terrible work.”

Having scripted memorable plays and dramas such as Khaleej, Dastak, Bisaat and Rozi broadcasted on PTV, Imran Aslam of Geo TV compares past and current viewing habits along with endorsing Ashraf’s views on lack of serious drama appraisal.

“There was only one TV channel back then which everyone would watch and everyone is nostalgic about. But the truth of the matter is that there are a number of dramas and plays that one remembers from those times and these can be counted on one’s fingertips.

“The other thing that has disappeared is proper criticism. Nobody is sitting around meticulously looking at the dramas. We were scared of critics like Maxim and Zeno. Newspapers have stopped reviewing plays.”

I do not completely agree with Ashraf and Aslam because as a TV reviewer, I have found it to be a formidable challenge to review plays because of the sheer quantity of serials that are churned out annually. On an average, on just one channel, four serials are screened every quarter which comes up to 16 serials annually. And this is a lot. When one multiplies 16 serials with five major entertainment channels, the total number is a staggering 80 dramas per year and hence the impossibility of reviewing all of them.

Another challenge one faces is that there is no defined criteria based on which one can decide to review a particular serial and can only be done randomly. Sometimes it is the writer and at other times it is the cast that compels one to watch and review the serial.

Moreover, people from the TV fraternity have thin skin; critiquing them often results in journalists being frozen out from interviews and stories. What is even worse, they often take to social media and post their grievances against a particular reviewer.


Writers and actors are expensive and in demand

Aslam also highlighted other problems that are adversely affecting the quality of TV dramas. “We have a limited number of writers, actors and directors, there are time constraints, we have only 10 to 12 TV stars and there is lot of pressure on them. They walk onto the set to shoot a scene and walk away [to another set]. They also don’t have the time.”

“Cinema is paying a [lot more]. So when [the likes of] Fawad Khan and Mahira Khan come back to TV they want more remuneration. They have out-priced themselves and the costs per episode, therefore, increase.”

Established writers are also expensive to hire. “Production houses are always trying to cut corners and hence they bring in new, inexperienced writers,” says Hum TV drama consultant Noorul Huda Shah.

Aslam cannot help but get nostalgic and recalls the period when he and other writers would be penning scripts. “When we were writing scripts, we wrote once every four years. We had time and there was no frenetic pace like today.”

He and Shah point out another critical element missing from drama and hence its regression. Sorely lacking a worldview and understanding of the complexity of human emotions, the current crop of writers churn out scripts that are shallow with generic characters. “The digest writer [who has now become television scriptwriter] has no exposure. They have a limited worldview and if they do write about a world which they have never experienced then it borders on caricature,” says Aslam.


How can drama be salvaged?

Given all these problems, can the bar be raised once again for TV dramas? Can the lost glory be regained?

Hiring content designers is one way to do so according to Shah. “What is sorely missing in the TV industry is the position of a content designer. Her job is not to write dramas but to give the basic premise to the writer and then direct the story accordingly.”

She also suggests hiring perceptive writers who have a firm grasp of the human psyche. “They should be acutely aware of their surroundings, social issues and provide solutions keeping the Pakistani society and Islamic values in mind.”

What about partnering with NGOs as has been done in the past with the likes of Udaari being made? Both Shah and Aslam say that so far the formula has been successful because the NGO Kashf Foundation and writer Farhat Ishtiaq have not shoved the message of child sexual abuse down people’s throats. “I must commend the writer for writing the play so intelligently,” says Aslam.“The partnership works because the risk factor is not on the channel. It is not their headache,” says Shah.

However, Aslam says such partnerships run the risk of propaganda and should be carefully done. Shah says that to avoid this dilemma it is best that writers write similar scripts without taking the aid of NGOs. After all, she points out, many such scripts have been written in the past and NGOs were nowhere on the scene.

At the end of the day, everyone unanimously agrees that the topic of TV drama is what essentially matters and will bring back lost glory to television.


TRPs: Gagging creativity or mirroring TV viewer’s tastes?

On what exactly are TRPs and why TV channels are so obsessed with them

by Shahrezad Samiuddin

Will Salahuddin and Manahil ever get together? When will Aapaji’s evil ways be revealed? These are just some of the questions, that Hira Anwar, senior producer at Hum TV calls “hooks”, which literally hook the audience’s attention to TV drama serials right till it ends. “I feel the audience wants to see stories they can relate to. So you have to find that story and create the hook,” says Anwar.

A good hook, coupled with big stars and a riveting (some would say bizarre) story, will help rake in TRPs for Hum TV. Or so they hope, for at the end of the day producing drama serials remains a notoriously uncertain business.

So what exactly are TRPs and why are TV channels so obsessed with them?

TRPs or Television Rating Points are used to judge which programmes are viewed the most. They are calculated based on meters that are installed in certain homes that serve as representative samples. There are 713 meters installed all over Pakistan that represent TV viewership for satellite transmissions. Based on the meter ‘reading’, TRPs calculate when the households watch television and what they watch on it. In a world where a high number of views translate into high TRPs, which in turn translate into a bigger share of the advertising pie, it is no surprise that channels are forever looking for the ‘right’ kind of content. In simple terms, the greater the number of eyeballs that watch a show, the greater the number of advertisers who want to flash their product during the serial, the more money the channel makes from that show.

However, what qualifies as the ‘right content’ varies and depends on which side of the drama serial production equation you are sitting on. Raamis Tanveer Ahmed, head of content at Ironline Productions, gives the perspective of production houses which create content for channels, “Channels like projects that show a roti dhoti aurat [a woman who cries and has a wretched life]. For instance, recently we sent four stories to a channel for approval. The one that got approved was the one that was being written by a big and successful writer and featured a miserable woman. In the drama that was approved, the husband was supposed to leave his wife for another woman. The channel told us to make the woman pregnant at the time the man leaves.”

To back up his point, Ahmed goes on to talk about dramas that held much promise but did not work, confirming the precariousness that showbiz is known for and giving an inkling of what according to him, works with the audience. “There was a drama called Kankar in which the woman asks for her rights. It did not do so well despite featuring big stars such as Sanam Baloch and Fahad Mustafa and despite being written by veteran writer Umera Ahmed and produced by a respected production house. The audience could not relate to the female protagonist who becomes empowered.


Ahmed believes that ‘the disempowered woman’ is popular with the audience ... “We are told that we have to create stories for 15 to 45-year-old women who are watching the drama serial while cutting onions. These women see themselves as ‘bechari’ [victim] and relate to a bechari protagonist.”


“The same thing happened more recently with Dil Lagi. The drama features big stars such as Mehwish Hayat and Humayun Saeed and has been written by a famous writer, Faiza Iftikhar, but is hasn’t done too well. I believe it is because the female protagonist is too self-reliant and practical. In contrast when Kankar was on air, there was a drama serial called Meray Harjai which was running concurrently and was getting a higher rating. Meray Harjai was about two sisters fighting and putting allegations on one another. Even Abroo, which has a typical saas-bahu theme, is doing well against Dil Lagi even though the cast does not feature big stars. Another drama that received high ratings was Kalmuhi in which a woman was beaten up and her hair was shorn.”

Ahmed believes that ‘the disempowered woman’ is popular with the audience that he is catering to and hence that is what pulls in the ratings. “We are told that we have to create stories for 15 to 45-year-old women who are watching the drama serial while cutting onions. These women see themselves as ‘bechari’ [victim] and relate to a bechari protagonist.”

Sarwat Nazir, a writer who has written popular dramas such as Mein Abdul Qadir Hoon, also feels that ratings play a big role when it comes to deciding content because according to her “…off-beat concepts are usually not approved by channels”. Nazir strongly feels that TV channels need to diversify in the issues that they explore on TV. “Sometimes I want to do an issue-based drama serial, because I really feel strongly about it, but such concepts usually don’t appeal to channels.” This, despite the fact that one of her most successful drama serials, Mein Abdul Qadir Hoon, was ‘uncommon’, because the protagonist was male and the theme tackled the issues of youth.

Because TRPs have such a decisive impact on content, Nazir feels writers are discouraged by channels from experimentation — such as writing stories that are set in rural areas. “I would really like to see outdoor rural shots, instead of stories that move from one room to another. Even if I do write an outdoor scene, it doesn’t appear onscreen and I am later told it wasn’t shot because the director didn’t want to make the extra effort.”

Nazir does not believe that there is a formula that can be applied and which will result in high TRPs. “I don’t think the roti dhoti aurat is a formula that works. Mindsets have changed. Dramas that do well are those that are reflective of people’s lives and life is not all about crying. Life is expansive; there are so many different aspects.”

She cites the example of one of her recent drama serials, “My last drama Sehra Mein Safar did fairly well and it was about a woman who has to work. She doesn’t want to work, but at the end of the day she is a working woman. People related to the drama. In my opinion, people like reality-based dramas.”

Representing the channels’ point of view, Anwar seconds Nazir’s belief, “There is no hard and fast rule when it comes to deciding content. Anything that people can relate to will work.”

In a world that serves as a juncture between business and creativity, TRPs are bound to become a bone of contention for the different players in the drama serial game. There are those who believe that TRP figures are manipulated or outright concocted. Others, such as Nazir, don’t believe that TRPs are always reflective of what the audience is watching: “I sometimes feel that ratings are based on such a small sample and just a few meters. I am not sure about how representative they are.”

On the other hand, in defence of TRPs, Anwar cites the example of the currently on-air drama Udaari, a serial that faced much controversy for tackling child abuse as one of its themes and which was nearly taken off air by Pemra. “With Udaari we didn’t just get feedback from TRPs. So many people came up to me personally to tell me that they were watching it. And when the Pemra controversy happened, so many people called me to find out if we were going to air it. So the TRP figures we were getting confirmed the personal feedback I was getting.”

Ask her if ratings are important and Anwar gives a self assured reply, “Of course. When you are in school, you give an exam. The result of the exam is important. Grades are important. Similarly you can say that our ratings are our grades. It is because of ratings that we get ads and sponsorships.”

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, June 26th, 2016