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Do we know what we’re doing?

March 04, 2012

WAS it a raid on the movement of unsuspecting young couples or a scripted affair involving paid actors? More hinges on that question than, perhaps, the show’s host and the channel on which the episode aired realise.

First, a recap.

Towards the end of January, a private national television network aired an episode of a morning show: flanked by some upper-class ladies, the host swooped down on couples strolling in a park and asked them questions such as ‘do your parents know where you are?’ or ‘how are you related to each other?’ Some couples tried to run away, or turn their faces, or simply wished the ground would swallow them up.

Others tried to speak up for their rights but were silenced by the barrage of accusations parading as questions, targeted for the ‘crime’ of strolling in a park — not breaking any sort of law, just strolling.

The footage earned itself all sorts of criticism, beginning with the rights of adults to stroll where they want, passing through their constitutional right to privacy, and going on to the inappropriateness of the media acting as a morality brigade and the dangers inherent in the idea of ‘vigil-aunties’ (not coined by me).

The host issued a somewhat weak apology, the channel issued an apology and terminated the employment of the lady in question, and the fast-changing media landscape of Pakistan moved on.

But we wouldn’t be Pakistanis if we didn’t have a penchant for making the bad worse. At the end of February, the lady appeared on a talk show and explained that in fact the ‘dating couples’ in the park had been paid actors. Moreover, she said, many in Pakistan’s television industry were in the practice of using actors to ‘recreate’ situations and scenes.

We have no way of knowing which version is true until some of the alleged actors come forward to verify the anchor’s claim. But if her more recent admission is true, then that brings up equally serious issues of rights and responsibilities.

One assumes that the lady believed that this revelation would shield her from criticism. But in terms of ethics and the credibility of the media, this admission just makes matters worse. It amounts to a confession that the anchor and whoever knew of the scripted nature of the scenes, such as the editors and possibly the channel management, was involved in hoaxing the audience.

And if this practice is thought of as a legitimate television ‘format’ in Pakistan, that casts serious doubts about whether the television industry knows what it is doing.

Scripted scenes that look live or real are far from unknown in television industries anywhere in the world. One way in which this format is used is that of ‘dramatic’ or ‘historical re-enactments’. This involves actors being shot in scenes meant to recreate a portion of history, a crime, a real-life event, or whatever. Documentaries are full of re-enactments. So are crime shows and those about social issues or many others.

The difference is, such scenes always say very clearly that they are a re-enactment, not the real thing. Watching a recreation of Julius Caesar’s conquests, the viewer is made aware of the fact that he is watching a dramatised re-enactment; there didn’t just happen to be a camera present at the scene. That a scene showing a man beating his wife in a show meant to highlight domestic violence was not shot with a hidden camera, the programme is at pains to tell you. Most producers run not just a strip on the screen saying that this is a re-enactment, but often also repeat this fact before or after the scene is broadcast.

Another format that blurs the boundary between fact and fiction, with elements from both, is ‘reality TV’. However, this, too, is significantly different from scripted scenes masquerading as reality.

‘Reality TV’, whether The Apprentice, Big Brother or Survivor, features ordinary people — non-actors working without scripts.

What you see is real, arguments, emotions and rivalries. But this format has set ‘rules of the game’ within which the non-actors operate.

The parameters of the programme are clear, the audience knows that the deal is and most importantly, the featured contestants are, aware of the fact that they are being filmed and thus, in a way, play to the camera. That scene of venom-spitting anger contains real emotion, but the person displaying it is aware of where he is and what he’s doing — as does the audience. In no way can it be likened to real people being secretly filmed, or scripted scenes pretending to be real.

A third relevant variation is what is often used in crime shows in particular. The suspect, face digitally obscured, runs; the law (and the camera, one assumes), chases.

In fact, except in rare cases where the law is actually being accompanied by a filming crew, this is not the case. Sometimes CCTV footage is used, and it is clearly stated that this is the case with all the relevant disclaimers. More often, it is a dramatised re-enactment and this too is made clear.

Why is it important for a programme to make its credentials etc. clear to the audience? Because credibility is at stake. If scripted scenes are used to stand in for real footage, then consider this scenario: the news channels are broadcasting footage of a man accusing hospital staff of having let his child die through negligence. How can the audience be sure it’s real? A group of criminals have apparently been caught in the act of cleaning out a house. Is that a scoop, or is it cheating?

I have a number of friends in the news and entertainment television industry and they tell me that the ‘format’ exposed by the Karachi park episode is in fact not so rare after all. There have been cases where actors are signed up to play the part of outraged anchors or journalists exposing wrongdoings and social issues. I personally know a professional actor engaged in a large news channel in this capacity.

Does our industry know what it is doing and the implications? It’s time to make the rules clear and stop cheating the audience.

The writer is a member of staff.

hajrahmumtaz@gmail.com