Do-gooder television: What's the real agenda?
A new Pakistani television channel claims to offer 'socially responsible' programming. Can a medium that caters to the masses ever be morally correct?
Television is a deliciously dirty business. Producers come up with innovative new ways to rehash the same old stories - and if they do it well audiences get hooked. In Pakistan television programming has largely been a familiar mash up of breaking news, high gloss drama and below the belt humour - until now.
Earlier this month former movie producer Rashid Khwaja (Very Good Dunya Very Bad Log) launched a new Pakistani channel with an unusual USP. The oh-so-creatively named 'A-plus' claims to have a 'socially responsible' line-up of programming. It has been airing reality shows which claim to contribute something of 'value' to society.
But reconciling social responsibility with a medium that thrives on humanity's lowest and most base emotions is not easy. Do audiences want to see good or are they sub-consciously demanding sex, violence and pain?
For A-plus' supposedly socially responsible programming department the question was irrelevant. Reality, you see is juicy and Pakistani audiences haven't seen anything yet.
Wedding bells and charity
One of the programmes that the channel has reportedly invested heavily in is "Haan, (mujhey) qabool hai." The concept is an original one - in each episode an upper middle class female host descends on to the home of a poor, sad, lonely girl who cannot afford her dowry. But don't be too sad - the show sponsors the entire wedding and of course, dowry. The audience watches the weeping mother's grateful tears, the hesitant bride's secret phone calls to her fiance and the silent father who braves through the 'rukhsati.' The audience attends all pre-nupital events including mehndi, mayun, dars, musical evenings through the programme. The host, Samayya, says she becomes 'a member of the family' and so does the audience. The show capitalizes on two of our national obsessions - weddings and desire to feel superior.
Is a show that actually promotes dowry and a fixation with material wealth responsible? Hardly. The programme is obviously about ratings - as it should be. The big brains in A-plus have a plan and don't be fooled by the low budget feel of the channel - it's a smart one.
The new wave of reality
Reality programming has yet to catch on in Pakistan in the same way as it has in the rest of the world. This is despite the magic formula of minimal investment, maximum gains and it's lowest common denominator appeal. But in true reality TV style - the genre has evolved. A few smart producers realize that reality does not have to be women in bikinis eating spiders on a fifty foot high diving board or high speed COPS style car chases.
New programmes have been cashing in on the audiences need to 'do the right thing.' This wave of 'new reality' is still in its nascent stages but is likely to expand. While old reality television alienated the intellectual elite this new genre emotionally blackmails the audience. After all here they are saving the life of a 6-year-old heart patient? How can you not watch this? Have you no soul?
Pakistan gets into the game
A-plus' reality programme line up includes the essential ingredients to guilt audiences in to tuning in and has enough masala to keep them from switching the channel. 'Messiah' is one of the channel's flagship programmes. The documentary style health show follows lower-income families struggling for health facilities. Until once again, A-plus comes to the rescue. The channel sponsors the treatment of the patient in exchange for allowing cameras to follow the family and capture their most private and personal moments. Audiences are privy to the raw emotions of families caught between life and death situations. Now, that's good tv but let's not kid ourselves it is by no means socially responsible.
The channel is also broadcasting a 50's horror-movie inspired programme called "Saqraat." The show is constructed on a combination of confession-cam style testimonials, 'expert' sound-bytes and dramatised reconstructions. This healthy dose of television tropes are used to discuss everything other-worldy and disturbing in the planet - from psychosis to ghosts to domestic abuse - in the same episode!
While shows like these and Insaf 24/7 (a legal advice show) promise to improve society, A-plus has plenty of traditional programming as well. Ironically, while sensationalized moralistic reality is their main selling point, overtly sexual female hosts in form fitting evening gowns appears to be their back up plan. The masala rack is well stocked.
Reality never looked so good
Whether morally correct reality is as good for ratings as Joe Millionaire is not clear yet. One of the most talked about examples of good--guy reality TV was a "Top Imam" contest held in Malaysia this summer. Producers said the goal of the show was to spread the message of Islam among young Muslims. The programme followed a 10-week elimination format, similar to American Idol and X-factor. The winner won a car, a trip to holy city of Mecca and the opportunity to become imam at a major mosque in Kuala Lumpur.
In 2008 "Dream and Achieve" was produced in Afghanistan. The programme was a competition for local 'socially responsible' business plans and social entrepreneurs that awarded cash prizes to the best one.
The best and worst part of do-gooder television is the sense of self-satisfaction that it can inspire in the audience. Telethons and SMS donations are the extent to which most viewers engage with their television for active change.
But just watching charity or voluntarism can make the audience feel like they too have participated in making a real change. This can go both ways. Will viewers rise up and go to their nearest hospital to become a messiah themselves or simply yawn and change the channel?
The ugly truth is that 'good reality' has little, if anything to do with the actions of viewers (just as sordid reality shows rarely lead to actual copy cats). The new wave of reality is not a harbinger of revolution but of ratings. Tune in for a taste of bittersweet reality - people like their stab wounds with a twist.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: August 10, 2010
Due to an error, an earlier version of this article misstated the names of Aplus staff. The managing director of the channel is Rashid Khwaja not Qureshi. The name of the host of 'Haan Qabool hai' is Sumayya not Sara.