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Small screen, big scream

The last 15 years have seen a surge in the number of television channels and radio stations in the country.
Updated 16 Oct, 2017 10:58pm
A YOUNG Benazir Bhutto (extreme right) hosting a talk show on Pakistan Television. Sitting next to her on the panel is her brother Murtaza Bhutto. | Photo: The Dr Ghulam Nabi Kazi Archives.
A YOUNG Benazir Bhutto (extreme right) hosting a talk show on Pakistan Television. Sitting next to her on the panel is her brother Murtaza Bhutto. | Photo: The Dr Ghulam Nabi Kazi Archives.

WITH round-the-clock, rush-to-screen images and sounds that invigorate the public sphere but also often mesh information and entertainment into discordance, television in Pakistan has completed half-a-century with some stellar accomplishments and abject failures.

In an era when socio-economic fissures intensify and technologies make rapid advances, new media economics hint that the next half century will bring radical changes to how the medium will distribute its message.

Viewing on smart-phones has already leapt up. Television intrusively determines content because news TV has become the big gallery to which the aggrieved public, politicians, lawyers, judiciary, armed forces and the private sector play and posture. Social media frequently overtakes TV, but not always. While the medium of television – and the media at large – has virtually become the message, the media itself accepts no responsibility for framing the message(s).

By inane, prolonged repetition of images and words, news television devalues its inherent capacity to enrich public knowledge. It magnifies and promotes the trivial to a scale undeserved. Fortunately, the non-news channels – global, national and local, state and private – periodically offer material that richly educates and entertains.

The evolution of television in Pakistan over a 50-year period can be divided into two parts. Part I: 1967-2002 when Pakistan Television Corporation was the principal state monopoly (Prior to Part I, there was a five-year period when pre-PTV Corporation entities provided limited signals even though PTV itself was officially inaugurated in 1964). Part II: 2002-17, when privately-owned channels came into operation under licences issued by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA). Currently, there are 88 channels, including about 40 news channels.

The last 15 years have seen a surge in the number of television channels and radio stations in the country. Seen here is a typical newsroom at a leading television channel, keeping track of multiple rivals to ensure being on the top of the competition.
The last 15 years have seen a surge in the number of television channels and radio stations in the country. Seen here is a typical newsroom at a leading television channel, keeping track of multiple rivals to ensure being on the top of the competition.

Within Part I, there was a sub-division. The first 10 years were so distinctive that even PTV could not match them in the next 40. With dynamic mobilisation of a wide range of talent, imparting training and skill development to hundreds, introducing innovative programmes, presenting for the first time a vivid daily portrait of the country’s varied and vibrant people, PTV’s first decade is aptly deemed the golden decade. From 1990 to 2002, the original monopoly was partly diluted. Shalimar Recording and Broadcasting Company, in which the federal government had, and still has, 56 per cent shares, was permitted to install terrestrial transmitters and re-telecast CNN to Pakistani audiences. Shalimar Television Network (STN) was also allowed to sell its non-news/current affairs time to a private party, Network Television Marketing (NTM), ignoring conflict-of-interest dimensions as NTM was aligned with an advertising agency. The STN system is now leased out to the ATV network.

MONOPOLY TO CACOPHONY

The 2002-17 phase represents a dramatic shift from one extreme of pure state monopoly to another extreme of private excess. The past 15 years have seen a phenomenal growth of private investment in TV and FM radio channels. This includes creation of thousands of new job opportunities; training of manpower (with some noticeable exceptions!); provision of multiple choices to audiences; increased range of language options; expansion of political and public discourse to become far more inclusive of diverse partisan viewpoints than it had generally been during PTV’s news monopoly; exposes of bad governance; improved presentation; occasionally well-written, directed and acted teleplays and serials; and, indeed, audacious caricature and satire.

Yet, the breadth of choice is not mostly accompanied by a proportionate depth in substance. There is proliferation without purpose, abundance without nuance, articulation without introspection. If the state channel has a pro-government bias, many private channels, subtly or crudely, manipulate their content, project their own biases and imbalances.

An obsession with events and incidents prevents examination of themes and trajectories, and legitimises sheer laziness behind the mask of chasing the ‘news’. Perhaps worst of all is the wilful neglect of aspects of culture, such as literature, classical music, painting, sculpture and theatre, while fashion shows, pop music and cricket become more ‘sponsorable’ content.

Based on a flawed revenue model of total reliance on income from advertising, private channels are infested by the virus of commercialism and cutthroat competition for ratings. This has led to a climb-down in the standards of debate and decorum in most talk-shows.

The valuable content-form of the carefully-researched, thoughtfully reflective film or documentary has almost disappeared. To be replaced by snappy ‘sorts’, ‘sound-bites’ or ‘capsules’ which are mostly superficial or sensationalist. Audiences are being brainwashed and conditioned with a surplus of conjecture, invective, mid-breaks, breaking news and futile frenzy. Attention Deficit Disorder is now a new media ailment, compounded by channels, and by smart phones.

PIONEERISM AND ACRIMONY

Thus, overall, evolution has proved to be a mixture of trailblazing pioneerism – by both PTV and private channels at different times – as also merely imitative ‘me-tooism’. There was a purposeful state role both at the outset in the 1960s and in creating a turning point in early 2000s when the state voluntarily ended its monopoly.

There is also a bitter acrimony between some private channels. This conflict further falsifies the myth of self-regulation which is actually a mask for self-interest.

For a sector that speaks the loudest about transparency and accountability, there is little or nothing of either about the financial aspects of television channels, about actual revenue, sources of advertising incomes and rates. While, as private limited companies, all are obliged to file annual data with the regulators and relevant authorities, the public at large remains completely uninformed about possible conflicts of interest, questionable practices et al.

Official regulation of private channels through PEMRA is marked by some creditable work in difficult conditions, including indiscriminate issuance of licenses with financial elements of eligibility receiving far more weightage than professional credentials of the applicants; using license and renewal fees to unduly accumulate income; attempts at strict enforcement of codes and rules often paralysed by legal stay orders that stay in place for years, instead of weeks; anarchy in the sub-sector of religious channels that commenced without licenses and have become untouchable for the wrong reasons; an inordinately large number of channels created by the blunder of permitting each of the 3,500 or so cable distributors to operate five of their own content channels, resulting in about 16,500 channels based on piracy of foreign content, and fragmentation of audiences; and lack of true independence as a regulatory body from the pressures of the state and the government.

DOWN MEMORY LANE

Right from ‘Alif Noon’ in its early days, PTV for long had a heavy dose of social satire that was much appreciated by the audiences. Seen here is a screen grab of the popular show Kaliyan which used puppets to amazing effect for more than a decade.
Right from ‘Alif Noon’ in its early days, PTV for long had a heavy dose of social satire that was much appreciated by the audiences. Seen here is a screen grab of the popular show Kaliyan which used puppets to amazing effect for more than a decade.

But when the present is too much with us, we owe the past a visit. And in PTV’s case, the past is still present. PTV’s first 50 years are a panorama of progressive change and regressive stagnation, of some promises fulfilled and enormous potential still unrealised. As the electronic visual gazette of the Pakistani state, PTV is a significant part of the country’s media history. From official documentarist to formal witness of public events to the promoter of an aspirational national singularity, PTV is a day-to-day recordist as well as an unrivalled decade-to-decade archivist of the country’s evolution over half-a-century.

While it is only natural that several individuals made outstanding contributions to the evolution of television in Pakistan, the list was surely headed by Aslam Azhar whose exceptional gift for leadership this writer calls ‘createlevity’. This includes several others who rarely appeared on-screen but were – and are – well-known. They all highly deserve being named here but for space limitations.

Aslam Azhar was in many ways the grand master of television in Pakistan. His association with PTV lasted intermittently from 1964 to 1989.
Aslam Azhar was in many ways the grand master of television in Pakistan. His association with PTV lasted intermittently from 1964 to 1989.

In 2017, PTV still remains a sober, tonally-balanced broadcaster compared to the hysterical, screeching approach of private news channels. Succumbing to the ‘breaking news’ option only when state and government events so require, but that too in a comparatively staid fashion, the country’s first channel is, to this day, its most well-behaved one.

The pre-dominance of governmental intrusion into internal management is evident in the fact that, of about 30 tenures of managing directors in about 50 years, only six individuals from within the specialised cadre of TV professionals were appointed as the head. Chairmen, with only a few exceptions, have almost always been secretaries of the Information Ministry.

This facet keeps PTV in the strait-jacket of a state entity. In its effort to ensure balance and fairness in news content and analysis, state ownership and governmental control are lethal. PTV is prevented from being seen as credible, to the extent that when it does attempt a balancing act, a strong predetermined perception obstructs a fair evaluation of its unconventional content.

In terms of finances, PTV continues to enjoy the unfair monopoly of being the sole recipient of television license fees. Automatically added to electricity bills, the license fees subsidy contributes 65-70 per cent of its total revenue. It also receives annual allocations under the Public Sector Development Programme (PSDP), which is not always fully utilised. But it likes to have its cake and eat it too. Benefiting exclusively from the license fees, PTV also competes with private channels for commercial advertising revenue – unlike BBC within the UK which is the sole recipient of license fees but does not accept advertising.

JUSTIFIED SCEPTICISM

This writer began his relationship with television as a sceptic who soon converted willingly into a freelance contributor. The context of association for over 50 years has changed with time: as viewer, independent content-provider, advertising practitioner, public-interest litigator, legislative monitor, cabinet minister-cum-media policymaker in three governments and drafter of the EMRA (1997), RAMBO (2000, which became PEMRA in 2002 ) ordinances, media commentator, Supreme Court-appointed mediator on intra-television sector conflicts, and member of the SC-appointed Media Commission. That being so, one has had the privilege of a close, continuous nexus with this mass medium from several perspectives.

Four conclusions emerge.

One: That in the swelling crowd of channels there is still not a single authentic public service broadcaster independent of the government and un-dependent on advertising.

Two: That substantial, long overdue reforms for PEMRA, PTV, private channels and advertising should be conducted by parliament, judiciary, government, advertisers, civil society and media/TV channels themselves. Many such proposed reforms await action through the Media Commission’s Recommendations pending with the Supreme Court since 2013.

Three: That the basic policy changes one introduced as a cabinet minister in 1988-89, 1996-97, 2000 became as transient as personal tenures or governments because most could not be made structural and institutional, often due to reluctance at the highest level. The only exception was the eventual enforcement of PEMRA in 2002, but, alas, even that was riddled with mis-steps, such as permitting unchecked cross-media ownership, etc.

Four: The more one studies the ambivalent role of television, the more one returns to the scepticism about this medium which one began with. In other words – when the more things change, do they remain even more the same?


Details about the writer’s work are at www.javedjabbar.com


This story is part of a series of 16 special reports under the banner of '70 years of Pakistan and Dawn’. Read the report here.