Composed by Leea Contractor
Composed by Leea Contractor

“Making prog­rammes for children is the hardest job in the world,” Farooq Qaiser tells me on the phone late one evening. Qaiser, if you didn’t know, is the creator of Uncle Sargam, Maasi Museebatay, Rola and host of other puppets that became pop culture icons three decades ago.

“It’s a job where grown-ups have to make intelligent decisions by keeping the point of view of a child.” It’s like stepping into brightly-coloured shoes five sizes too small.

Making it work is a whole different ballgame, Qasier says — and it’s a much more difficult a job right now than it was in the ’70s.

Uncle Sargam, who first appeared in the children’s show Kaliyaan on PTV, and then years later turned his attention towards adults in Siyaasi Kaliyaan on Dawn News, is a relic of a bygone age. A reminder of simpler, less commercial times.

Since then, tastes — especially of kids, according to Qaiser — have matured, and dedicated programming, at least in the old sense of the world, has all but disappeared.

Despite the mushroom growth of television channels in Pakistan, indigenous children’s programming has all but disappeared from our television screens. What is the cause? And why is it necessary anyway?

Once, when state-run PTV reigned as the only option for televised entertainment, programming was segmented by the clock. There was a dedicated time for comedy, drama, infotainment (back at that time, they were called documentaries), and children.

Every day of the week, roughly between four and five in the afternoon, PTV offered syndicated cartoons, original dramas (Bahadur Ali, Ainak Wala Jinn) and music/variety shows for children (Sung Sung Chalein, for example). The object of this programming was unpretentious: to educate without being obvious.

As the ’80s turned into the ’90s, and the first semi-private network NTM (on STN) came into the picture, the point of view of creating (or importing) content remained the same — at least for the next few years. Then the marketing age happened — and children’s programming eventually became a casualty.

It was the same case all over: from India, whose state-run channel Doordarshan followed a similar routine, to American television which, despite a much more mature market, still had a committed slot for children. While television in American had stricter regulations in the form of the Children’s Television Act (better known as the Kid Vid rules), it too changed with the times.

Today, children’s content is restricted to 24/7 television channels such as Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, internet platforms such as YouTube, Netflix or other streaming services, or motion pictures.

This might seem like success, but don’t root for this victory just yet. If you ask the veterans of the industry — or people who were young three decades ago — it’s like rooting for failure.

Misbah Khalid, a veteran producer-director and an advocate of original children’s programming, is very vocal about the lack of relatable home-grown content.

“We need concentrative programmes for children. There is so much to teach and so much to learn in a much more interesting way,” she tells me in a voice message from Spain. The animated characters we see on television don’t adhere to our sensibilities.

“There is so much you learn as a child that crafts your personality. If we want our children to grow up to become responsible, educated individuals, we have to start now when they are young. To give them the right morality, the right ethics and the right thoughts — things they can use to become better citizens of the world,” she says.

“Production of content — especially from private channels — is dictated by marketing and sales, and the emphasis for children’s programming from multinationals, who give advertisements to sustain these channels, is simply not there,” says Khaled Anam.

Anam, like Misbah Khalid, is known for his diligent advocacy of children-specific programming.

“[Since the days of PTV] we lost who was in charge,” he tells Icon on the phone. “Since television became a 24-hour business, it’s been a different ballgame.” Today, it’s less about content, and more about business and management, he says.

Initially, both Geo and ARY did run children’s programming, Anam says, but eventually they just gave up.

“Children’s programming worldwide is a billion dollar industry, and unfortunately we have not been able to take advantage of that because of shortsightedness,” Anam explains.

According to both Khalid and Anam, the government did extend an offer to launch a dedicated children’s channel but it has been nothing more than lip-service at best.

“Everyone — from channels to individuals — have tried on their own to develop children’s programming. The biggest concern, however, is not of programming but of quality,” Abdullah Kadwani, Group Managing Director at Geo Entertainment tells me during a detailed conversation.

Maasi Museebatay and Uncle Sargam from the children’s show Kaliyaan on PTV
Maasi Museebatay and Uncle Sargam from the children’s show Kaliyaan on PTV

“Today’s children are more dynamic. They are not accustomed to watching the type of programming from 20 years back. They will not watch Ainak Wala Jinn or Kaliyaan. Their visions have expanded, they watch YouTube, they watch foreign channels, and they watch international movies. The child already has access to every platform — digital or otherwise — within hand’s reach,” Kadwani says.

“If I venture into children’s programming, then there are two problems I have to contend with,” Kadwani continues. “First, if I were to make children’s productions relevant for our audience, then I would have to match international standards, and that can only come by employing people who know what they are doing,” he says. “The intention then would be to have the child hooked on what he or she is watching,” he clarifies.

“Secondly, there are budget concerns. I cannot invest two or three million rupees on children’s programming. Unfortunately, in Pakistan we don’t have a model where we get advances from advertisers. They mostly come aboard once the product is successful,” Kadwani adds.

Even if Kadwani somehow found a way to crack the production and content dilemma, his third concern stops him dead in the tracks — the female audience.

“There are no two ways about it,” Kadwani says. “Our target audience which gives us our ratings and revenue, the ones who hold the remote, are female. The advertiser always supports productions that give them ratings.”

There is a loophole that he, as a producer, exploits now and again.

“Since our main concern is to educate the child, and let him know the difference between what’s right and what’s wrong, we add story elements within conventional dramas. We deliberately add stories where a child might end up making a wrong decision and has to come to his family for guidance — or we add segments for children in live programming.”

Even if Kadwani were to single out a one-hour slot for children (which Geo Entertainment did do in its early days by syndicating dubbed content from The Disney Channel in India), and if the idea tanked, then it could lead to massive losses for one television channel in particular.

“There is a way out,” he suggests. “If the entire industry stands together, and makes an active decision to support home-grown children’s entertainment, for at least a few years.” The task is too big for one organisation, Kadwani feels.

Kadwani, though, does suggest that he is contemplating children-based productions for Geo’s upcoming digital platform. Production, though expensive, might be viable there because the audience for the web is more diverse.

Aziz Jindani, the director and producer of The Donkey King, says that the web is the way to go. “YouTube is the number one source of kids’ entertainment in Pakistan,” he says. The fact that the song Donkey Raja from my film has 33 million hits onYouTube is a testament to the power of the medium,” Jindani says.

And he is right. For comparison, the most popular song from a recently released Eidul Azha film has less than seven million hits at the time of this writing.

“Donkey Raja is the most popular song in the history of Pakistani cinema. If not kids, then who else is viewing it?” Jindani asks.

“In my opinion, the issue is no longer lack of kids’ programming because there is ample content on YouTube and even on Cartoon Network. The issue is lack of ‘local content’ for kids. The emphasis on the word ‘local’ is important here because such content is not only more relevant to a broader kids’ audience, but is also a tool for popularising and advancing local culture and history. Just look at our neighbouring country, and how they have used local cartoons featuring contemporary avatars of mythological heroes to pass on a value system to a generation of kids’ that otherwise are consumed by western culture,” Jindani emphasises.

“The future of kids’ content on TV can only change if the state takes this responsibility, as private channels are already financially squeezed and cannot afford to experiment. If left to the private sector, at best, we can have a YouTube channel which has both reach, revenue and a new set of challenges of its own,” Jindani says.

It is, in fact, the route Misbah Khalid, Khalid Anam and even Farooq Qaiser are attempting to take.

“I think, by not investing in developing local kids’ content, we are missing out on a nation- and culture-building opportunity, not just an entertainment opportunity,” Jindani says.

Published in Dawn, ICON, September 8th, 2019