Reality television is a big business in the West and large audiences tune in to watch traditional reality TV — game shows, voyeuristic shows, makeover or self-improvement shows or shows on supernatural phenomena. Reality television stars make more money by tweeting about the events they have attended and products they use than most folks earn by working 40 hours a week.
In Pakistan, what has surpassed traditional reality TV and other entertainment forms is the genre and subgenres of talk shows. An ideal talk show should have the right balance between spontaneity in and control over interactions of its participants, between realism and representation, the gendered dimensions of the programmes and the role of the hosts and the quality of arguments on the shows. Talk shows should be cognisant of these factors because they are fast emerging as mediated space for public participation and debate and provide an opportunity for the expression of voices that are otherwise excluded from the media.
A quick look at the talk shows produced in Pakistan reveals that most of them — news, current affairs or the entertainment variety — tend to ignore the factors that they should be mindful about and are turning into trash reality TV. Talk shows generally fall in the categories of public discussions, therapeutic and conflict talk shows. However, in Pakistan, we have political talk shows where instead of keeping a balance between spontaneity and managing control over the programme, a host encourages conflict between participants to garner more eye balls. Morning shows that specifically target female audiences perpetuate misogynist stereotypes with impunity. There is hardly any significant representation of marginalised groups; most participants and hosts regularly use the line “akhir ko hum sab Muslaman hain” (after all, we are all Muslims) which not only negates the existence of religious minorities in the country but also encourages homogeneity of the society as a desired goal. We have morning shows that telecast live exorcisms turning a talk show into reality TV — of the worst variety.
Those of us who remember “The Jerry Springer Show” from the 1990s recall it as the lowest form of reality TV which counted on the stupidity of its audience for high ratings. Unfortunately, most of the Pakistani TV content in general and talk shows in particular copy the formula of creating brash, in-your-face and emotionally excitable content. While Jerry Springer was flagrantly and self-consciously trash television, Pakistani talk shows believe in their righteousness and suffer from an acute case of a sense of self-aggrandisement. As a country where other forums of public discourse are severely lacking, public debate in the media assumes more significance. Unfortunately, commercialisation and the need for higher ratings have resulted not only in subliminally low-brow television but have also begun to represent public opinion rather than provide public space for the emergence and creation of diverse public opinion. It is high time the creators and producers of talk shows become aware of their responsibility. It is not just television for ratings; it is shaping the public and private discourse on matters relating to politics, society, gender and rights of the marginalised.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 30th, 2012.