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Switch to any Pakistani cable news channel, and it’s the same overly busy graphics, split screen, screamingly bright colours, the very rapid ticker tape reminding us of breaking news, while our ears are bombarded with the raised voices of the anchorpersons and the guests outshouting each other.

The world’s first 24-hour television news network, CNN, was established in 1980. The dramatic live coverage of the 1991 Gulf War gave it a global presence and a political influence, creating what has come to be known as the CNN Effect. Former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali satirically called it “the 16th member of the Security Council.” BBC followed with its 24-hour news channel in 1997, and television news changed forever, encouraging other countries to set up their own 24-hour news channels.

News as drama was the brainchild of Joseph Pulitzer in the late 19th century, who presented newspaper articles as stories with plots, conflict and vivid details.

Public broadcasting was envisioned as a platform for establishing national identity through shared culture and stories. Television had mixed programming that included sports, music, drama, cinema, comedy, travel, nature and history, for both children and adults, with news on the hour, the most important being the 9 o’clock news. Television brought the world into the home and created a space for relaxation and shared family viewing.

We grew up on Quraishpur challenging Obaidullah Baig and Iftikhar Arif on the quiz show, Kasauti; Sohail Rana’s Hum hi Hum, a music show for children; Gar Tu Bura Na Maanay interviews, the riveting Zia Mohyeddin Show; Sultana Siddiqui’s music programmes; the travel show, Sailani ke Saath; comedy shows Alif Noon, Such Gup and 50/50; the dance programme from Dhaka, Niritti Tale Tale; Qawwali by Sabri Brothers and of course, the gripping drama serial, Khuda ki Basti. Modest documentaries revealed the secrets of snake charmers and the making of 17-string puppets. The news was read in a calm voice, even during the 1971 war.

Today, television in Pakistan has specialised channels for each genre, with news channels dominating. Most young people stream films on laptops or smart phones and family viewing has become atomised.

The 24-hour news channels that move from breaking news to breaking news fill the gaps with summaries, analyses, repetition of images and talk shows aimed to rouse passions. The aural and visual barrage, instead of creating clarity, leaves the viewers confused, stressed and doubtful. Of course, for media houses, this format is more economical than commissioning investigative journalism or producing informative documentaries.

In an internet dominated world, where people can get news updates online, how can the role of public broadcasting be adapted? Many media houses have a growing online presence, changing from “push” to “pull” media. The first is a small group who decide what content is to be offered and then “push” it at passive consumers, whereas the web is a “pull” medium, requiring a user to actively select content from a server. Elizabeth Murdock describes TV as a ‘sit back medium’ and the web as a ‘sit up medium.’

Yet television has its own distinct qualities from the web. It is a shared experience, creating social bonding between friends or within the family in a real rather than a virtual space, something families re-discovered during Covid-19 lockdowns. The managed diversity of good programming can have a positive, both as an educational tool and to connect a society culturally. Perhaps it is time to bring back mixed programming channels.

In November this year, Netflix France announced a traditional linear TV channel, Netflix Direct, to offer a “lean back” experience of gathering together to watch prescheduled content. As Francois Josh, director of the magazine Télévision, says, “The internet disperses the audience, but television unites it.”

Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist and heads the department of visual studies at the University of Karachi Email: durriyakazi1918@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, EOS, January 3rd, 2021

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