In 60 minutes punctuated by 60 commercials, only Hameed Guls, Zaid Hamids, and Imran Khans can answer every question on any topic
Before the commercialization of the television system in Pakistan, the prime time on the country’s sole TV channel, PTV, was dedicated to drama or sitcoms. Despite a harsh censorship regime, PTV aired many quality productions. Such was the popularity of certain PTV serials that traffic on the streets would go thin during the times they were broadcast.
Not merely were many of these productions distinguished by their artistic caliber; most of them were also produced with a developmentalist perspective. Respect for minorities, national integration, sectarian harmony, above all a contempt for consumerist culture marked most of the PTV productions. State-control, no doubt, adversely affected some genres, most notably current affairs. KhabarNama, for instance, was ridiculed as BeyKhabar-nama [Un-News].
The state-run Door Darshan (DD) in neighbouring India was characterized by similar peculiarities. While current affairs programmes on DD lacked credibility, certain soap operas, produced with developmentalist goals in mind, were mega-hits. Hum Log, for example, was immensely popular and was produced to popularize family planning.
Hum Log’s idea was to show a large family beset with problems like poverty, alcoholism, and illiteracy. At the end of the show, film star Ashok Kumar appeared on screen to push the message that because it was a large family that it faced problems. More than 80 percent of the 3.6 million Indian television sets at that time tuned to Hum Log every week.
Another legendary DD hit Ramayan would send streets and marketplaces empty on Sunday mornings when it was telecast. Events advertised for Sundays were careful to mention: “To be held after Ramayan.” Crowds gathered around every wayside television set. Engine drivers were reported to depart from their schedules, stopping their trains at stations en route if necessary, in order to watch.
Buniyaad, Katha Sagar, Khandaan, Nukkad and a host of other popular serials were aired week after week. However, in spite of aggressive promotional campaigns, neither contemporary soap operas nor comedy shows on privately-run commercial channels have attracted the audiences the way PTV or DD productions did in the 1980s.
One may argue that DD and PTV did not compete, and hence their monopoly explains the popularity of their respective productions. But we cannot go back to the 1980s and set PTV or DD in competition with commercial channels to empirically prove one proposition or the other.
However, monopoly does not explain the popularity of a certain serial or genre. For instance, many TV plays did not win audiences’ approval. Also, current affairs programming remained unpopular on state broadcasts as stated above despite monopoly conditions and lack of competition from commercial television systems. The fact of the matter is: commercial television system prioritises money above all. An artistic production requires time and money besides talent and creativity. To cut costs, commercial channels prefer cheap genres. It was under this capitalist logic that prime time has gradually, from the 1990s onwards, gone over to reality and talk shows. Not just in the Indian subcontinent, but perhaps all over the world, most notably in the USA. The US model is largely emulated all over the world by commercial TV.
In the 1990s all major US networks replaced expensive dramas and sitcoms with reality or talk shows. By 2006 the cost of a primetime episode averaged about US$1.5 million an hour in the USA. Each installment of ER was costing $13 million. X-Files would cost $2.5 million per episode. Each of the six leading actors on Friends received $1 million per half-hour episode.
A talk show does not cost this much. A typical talk show does not require a cast, script writers, costumes, hectic editing, outdoor shooting, rehearsals, and host of other overhead and production-related costs. Recorded in studios, all a talk show requires is a hysterical anchorperson surrounded by unpaid ‘experts’. The experts, in turn, should not only match the anchorperson in ignorance and hysteria but should also be good at concocting facts, constructing incredible conspiracies, and reducing truth by half. From Fox to Al-Jazeera, the pattern remains the same. True, a few sane people do appear sometimes on such talk shows. But their voices are drowned out in maddening noises. Hence, these talk shows have by and large trivialized discourse.
In the first place, as French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu points out, “time limits make it highly unlikely that anything can be said” on television genres like talk shows. Except, of course, outright banalities that can be aired as sound bites. This is also because an hour-long talk-show is punctuated by 20 commercials. The moment, if ever, that debate assumes any serious tone the anchorperson goes on a choti see [short] break.
In view of this banalizing of debate, Edward Said toward the end of his life had boycotted TV appearances on commercial networks. It is because even Edward Said cannot articulate a sober notion in sound bites. A nuanced articulation requires time.
For Plato, ‘skole’ which means school, also means ‘free time’. In other words, knowledge, learning and education require freedom from time constraints. In 60 minutes punctuated by 60 commercials, only Hameed Guls, Zaid Hamids, and Imran Khans can answer every question on any topic. Because only such demagogues can unscrupulously shoot their mouths off. The most convenient thing to speedily churn out is stereotypical, conventional common sense. By the time these clichés reach you, to quote Bourdieu, “these ideas have already been received by everybody else, so reception is never a problem”.
Reception is important to win ratings. When demagogues transmit an idea already available as common sense, all is solved by itself. The ‘experts’ do not need to engage in any serious inquiry required to educate others. Similarly, they save the audience from the mental labour a learning process entails.
For example, a Ghairat Brigade member does not need to argue when invited to debate, say, Pervez Hoodbhoy. Instead he accuses Hoodbhoy of being in the pay of CIA/RAW. Neither the ‘experts’ nor the audiences need any nuance when the “common sense” about Hoodbhoy says it all! This is the state of idiocy to which commercial television tries to reduce its audience.
Farooq Sulehria is currently pursuing his media studies. Previously, he has worked with Stockholm-based Weekly Internationalen. In Pakistan, he has worked with The Nation, The Frontier Post, The News, and the Pakistan. He has MA in Mass Communication from the University of Punjab, Lahore. He also contributes for Znet and various left publications internationally.