A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to have Mr Tauqeer Nasir, a famous actor, on my morning show. We were discussing the golden years of PTV and he used the word “magic box” for the television set. This made me think: when did the magic box become the idiot box? I remember being a kid and only having the option of watching PTV or NTM. My siblings and I waited all day to watch “Sesame Street” in the early evening and woke up extra early to watch Mustansar Hussain Tarar’s morning show before going off to school. Back then, television carried quality programming and each show reflected the immense effort and love that had gone into its production.
Today, the situation is very different. One cannot even bear to switch on a local channel. The programming ranges from shaadi and jinn/bhoot weeks on morning shows to screeching politicians on current affairs shows. Actual interviews are few and far between. Instead, anchors seem to go out of their way to humiliate their guests and sometimes tragically themselves as well. News channels consider even a cow getting stuck in a bush to be breaking news. And if there is a bomb blast or natural disaster, the focus is on showing blood, gore and guts to an already traumatised, frightened audience. There needs to be PG ratings for news channels nowadays. I remember one time when my son, Hamza, watched coverage of a bomb blast for all of five minutes at his grandmother’s house. He was so terrified he couldn’t stop talking about it for weeks.
Then there is the decaying drama industry that seems to focus mostly on the affairs of married people. The stories are awful and the production values are worse. There is little regard for character development and the same few locations get repeated over and over again. No wonder, Turkish dramas have swept up a large chunk of the drama-watching audience. Don’t get me wrong, I am very much a part of this media industry and I am not slamming everyone in it. We still have actresses like Sania Saeed and Nadia Jamil, who make us proud by refusing to compromise their talent for money. But I know, unfortunately, I have compromised on the quality of programming for higher ratings in the past. I recently watched a serial I had done two years ago and was horrified at both my performance and the production of the project. So much for wanting to be an ‘A’-grade actor and winning an Oscar!
As a young girl, all I wanted was to be an actor. Now when I look at the product I put out there, I wonder if I made the right choice. When I started, my inspiration was PTV dramas like “Tanhaiyan” and “Dhoop Kinaray” and Indian movies like Lamhe and Arth. Where does one look to now for motivation? Hollywood still has its charm but, at least for Pakistanis, it lacks the glamour of Bollywood. The Indian movie industry itself has moved for content towards songs, dance and ever skimpier costumes.
The other side of the story is that viewers themselves have little interest in intellectually stimulating content. After all, why do shaadi weeks and jadoo weeks get the highest ratings? Why are husband and wife infidelity dramas so popular?
Our film industry came to a crashing end a few decades ago and I fear the TV industry may be headed the same way. The problem is that while we live in an age where sex sells, we are in no position to compete with foreign content. We do not have the option of joining the race to the bottom. Instead, we have to compete by making interesting, character-driven stories that people want to watch. Competing on the basis of quality is difficult. But the golden age of PTV reminds us that our artists are capable of matching up with the best that the world has to offer. And if we did it once, I’m sure we can do it again. Who knows, we may again start thinking of television as a ‘magic box’.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 9th, 2013.