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Local vs foreign plays

January 20, 2013

THIS is with reference to Jawwad Daud’s article ‘Local discontent over foreign content’ (Images, Jan 13). The article masquerades as an expert’s comment but is a bystander’s view.

He paints the Pakistani television drama industry as insecure while people panic over the popularity of foreign dramatic content, and seek protection.

In fact, this is a problem of economics.

The main private local drama industry, which is about 20 years old and not 50, as stated by Mr Daud, creates content for entertainment channels. It employs thousands of producers, directors, writers, actors, technicians and associated facilitators. It has grown at an amazing pace during a period when other economic indicators showed downward trends.

This industry is threatened because channels are broadcasting, on prime-time, high-production-cost, second-hand foreign content purchased at throwaway prices because they have already been aired in their home countries (also referred to as cultural dumping).

The problem is not even that these are being aired, but that they are being aired on local channel’s prime-time slots. In other words, a drama serial that costs millions to make but was purchased at one-tenth of the cost, which is much lower than the price to be paid for a locally produced, indigenous and brand new production, are being preferred for prime time, making this well-paid and much-competed-for slot unavailable to local content.

This is far from a level playing field, which is what the people working in this industry are demanding.

The practice, initially restricted to one channel, is being adopted by others too. Pakistani content is, therefore, being replaced or relegated to lower-paid non-prime time slots, by Indian and Turkish content. New agreements between local, private producers and channels have been suspended.

As a result, new production activities have slowed down distinctly, major production houses are having to downsize, busy actors have become jobless and production staff is being laid off in many cases. On Pakistani channels, Pakistani content has been reduced to less than 50 per cent: if cable channels are included, it is no more than five per cent.

Shouldn’t we be alarmed?

Is it justified that a vibrant and growing industry be destroyed? What we demand is a level playing field, in which media moguls cannot buy high-production-cost programming at low rates and earn millions through advertising, sidelining locally-produced content.

Incidentally, the much-vaulted ratings are not actually a reliable indicator of popularity. They are biased in favour of the big cities and a small portion of middle classes, the sample sizes they depend on are small and they are liable to manipulation.

Television executives need to step out of their glass towers and tune in to what Pakistan’s masses, and overseas Pakistanis are watching. It is a very different world where Pakistani actors are stars and Pakistani dramas are the rage.

SAMINA AHMED CEO, Samina Ahmed Productions Lahore