by Rifaat Hamid Ghani
TV started out in Pakistan as a government monopoly dressed up as a semi-autonomous corporation. There was every reason for PTV to be a disaster, yet it was an enviable success.
President Field Marshal Ayub loved it for its power as a propaganda tool that dispensed with literacy requirements and had more magnetism than the radio. Aslam Azhar, PTV’s defining and trail-blazing station-manager, loved it for what it could do to educate and inform. That was the idealist in him. The actor in him loved it because it was a creative medium. The PTV he nurtured with a board of imaginative mandarins to back him, had an egalitarian working environment and it changed norms and mores.
All within the parameters of the Ministry of Information’s most stringent rules the new medium empowered women, dignified the artiste, and changed social conventions. PTV gave the artistes and creators of drama, music, dance, a place to go and be and earn. It gave the entertainment industry a respectability which assured parents their young could participate despite the amazingly irregular working hours and rather low grade recognition granted the programme producer, bureaucratically speaking. Of course the outreach of PTV’s state propaganda was soul-deadening – but even so programmes like Alif Noon redeemed much. And in terms of professionalism and entertainment value the quality of PTV programming and production and technical transmission dominated the region and was an exemplar.
Cut to now.
The environment offers programmers and producers the reality of an enviably free press and a multiplicity of platforms. To make use of all this they have first to find the media house ready to risk their proposals. Indirect pressures and temptations are possibly more insidious than recognizable overt ones which can also be condemned outright for what they are. The TV cable network has a more complex DNA than PTV the monopoly.
Technology and license have been over-enabling so that it is possible to spew forth reams of footage without much prep. Quality as to the technical aspects of video transmission and variety in programme content is superfluous, a forgotten standard. It is not foundational to a channel’s preparedness to air 24/7: Nor to its finding an audience. The cable operator’s bouquet is linked to demand and saleability. Even in societies better educated than ours yellow journalism and soap guarantee an audience. Media houses favour formulae that have been tried and tested in the box-office and opt for presentation methods that have low production costs.
This adds up to trite entertainment and political babble: Talk shows and political punditry are probably the cheapest kind of programming; and in a culturally conflicted politically fraught society they find a ready ear. Sadly, social documentaries are perfunctory productions reminiscent of material off an NGO shelf. Too rare is the dedicated passion, imagination, personal knowledge and originality that infused PTV’s so greatly constrained forays into social and political commentary and dramatization.
TV today exhibits the selfsame media-celebs hopping from channel to channel, sometimes as anchors and sometimes as analysts. Featuring under different rubrics, the same expert can be seen simultaneously on several channels in stale cable TV bouquets. Admittedly media houses’ celeb reporters now travel the world where news is breaking just like CNN’s and BBC’s. Wow. But the viewer is left yawning.
Just as if the market were still a monopoly, the TV viewer is in the unhappy situation of being captive to what suppliers offer. He does not believe in consumer resistance. TV is a habit: Why switch off? When the noise is too strong press mute, for the news update also runs on tickers. The audience is critical but that does not impact advertisement income.
Channels and cable operators are motivated by cutthroat competition and commercial profit. Media house promotional intent and news treatment orientations are linked to the interests of the media house owners. They can be power brokers on a massive scale projecting personalities and ideas in McLuhan’s global village. The in-house culture is that of a corporate multinational first and public service second. The watchdog’s master is the media house owner. And the media brand lacks political and ideological consistency thanks to the injection of variable mercenary pressures.
And so we have TV as it is now: self-glorifying, multiple, free, ubiquitous – and devoid of credibility. Not a healthy situation in a politically confused and disturbed society where slick demagogues abound and access ready platforms.
We applaud a free TV only as much as we miss the collective social conscience of a shackled public TV that recognizes and escapes its chains.