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Sunday, January 13, 2013


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Foreign Content on Pakistani Television, its impact on local industry, and the positive percept

There is a lot of panic, pandemonium, and press conferences. The Pakistani Television Drama Industry (PTDI) has ‘united’ and ‘unanimously’ demanded a ban on foreign content (Indian, Turkish, Spanish, and so on) on local television during prime time. There is an immediate need to save and rescue the PTDI or it will collapse within a year. Thousands of jobs will be lost and it will be years before our drama recovers. This trend will cause a chain reaction so putrid in its nature that the whole space-time continuum …..

Wait! This can’t be real. We’re talking about an industry, not a house of cards. There must be method to this madness. And there is. On closer inspection, this ‘crisis’ appears to be so deep that one can dip a matchstick in it and the level would still be below its head.

First off, most of the industry believes this is a boon, not bane. What we need is positivity, not panic. The identical arguments and repeated phrases meant to help us appreciate enormity of the calamity are so frail that they can’t hold water.

Well, they can’t even hold air.

All this started midyear last year when Urdu 1 started airing a Turkish play – already an international hit - dubbed in Urdu. Alarms went off when it reached TRP (Target Rating Points) of 10 as most local plays struggle at 4 or below. For the uninitiated, TRP are the industry standard through which channels and advertisers assess popularity of a show and decide whether to extend or end it.

At least in theory.

Overnight, phones were ringing in Turkey and eager employees scouted for the next ‘Isk-e-Memnu.’ Eventually, Liras changed pockets and teasers for several ‘foreign’ plays for primetime went on air. Primetime means more money and absence from primetime means less money and for the ‘initiated’ this meant ‘Our Drama’ had to be ‘saved’.

By creating panic.

Able minds of PTDI went numb with fears as they were fed ‘what-if’ scenarios. They asked ‘what if people stop watching local plays?’ instead of wondering why would that happen? Is it because our stories have become monotonous or because the content of some of our plays has become obnoxious? Is it because same faces appear in different mix across all channels or because we attach more value to production than content?

Are people attracted to it because it’s ‘foreign content’ or because it has ‘content?’

We worry about invasion of alien cultures but are we depicting our culture in our plays? Since when has crass language, objectionable plots, and offensive characters become our culture?

And then there is the most arrogant argument of all: foreign plays are popular because of semi-nude women and we don’t have a ‘level-playing field.’ At best, it insults intelligence of our viewers by implying they neither have the sense nor sensibility to choose what to watch: show them a little skin and they’ll drool. And they’ll keep drooling for the next 200 episodes. If this argument had any substance, why these plays would become major hits in country of their origin as they must be used to this ‘nudity?’

Secondly, it entails our viewers have no sense of story and they just want to watch beautiful people driving expensive cars living in luxurious villas. At the heart of every popular show is a conflict so engaging that people can’t help but root for the good guy and berate the bad guy. Humans have an innate need for an emotional journey they can relate to at the caveman level. Characters they can like, conflicts they may have craved, issues they want addressed.

Even more appalling were the videos that went viral on social media stating characters in foreign plays drank, wore skimpy clothes, and acted immorally. The promoters of these videos pleaded we don’t have permission to show all that. Subtext: what we can rather show you is an amorous 50-year old chasing his daughter’s best friend. Or a husband pursuing his sister-in-law. Or a mother forbidding her son from sharing bed with his wife thereby causing tension of the sort that’ll make Lolita appear safer in comparison.

Rumor has it channels are scouring Iranian markets for drama. What will we have to say when viewers get hooked on to hijab clad women living in smaller houses than ours and discussing issues that plague the world, not just them?

Some believe it’s a passing fad but recent popularity of ‘Fatima Gul’ and ‘Minahil Aur Khalil’ has proven otherwise. Turkish plays have exposed a major flaw, a void in our system that has long existed and grown over time: we’ve turned this business into fast food. Writers are expected to write at jet speed, talent and technicians are required to shoot 25 to 30 scenes a day, serials that take 18 weeks to air are shot in 4 weeks. Investors have replaced the ‘+, -, and ÷’ buttons on their calculators with ‘X.’ It’s all about profits, economies of scale, and collusion.

Well, mostly.

There are exceptional individuals whose vision, drive, and determination is inspiring. Private producers like Abdullah Kadwani, Abid Ali, Asif Reza Mir, Humayun Saeed, writers like Anwar Maqsood, Faiza Iftikhar, Umera Ahmed, Zafar Mairaj and freelance directors like Kamran Khan, Mehreen Jabbar, Shahid Shafa’at, Usman-Zulfiqar and countless others have given us such remarkable, memorable shows that we all feel proud, secure, and sure about the future of PTDI.

So what is the silver lining?

Essentially the same situation existed between 2000 and 2006 when most of our viewers were hooked on to Indian soaps. Then came HUM TV with all the novelty and might of its drama, reinventing the landscape of local television. Consequently the industry grew so wide that hundreds of new actors, technicians, writers, and directors found innumerable opportunities to work and grow. Actors became millionaires and producers became production houses. This was possible not because of semi nude women, shiny cars, lavish bungalows but because of superior content.

There is an outcry for protection for the PTDI; industry that has had time to grow for almost fifty years. Its members, the most creative, most passionate, most dedicated people are being painted as a scared, anxious, and uncompetitive lot. Protection is for the weak, for the helpless, for six-month old babies. 

PTDI has a lot of self respect and pride. It doesn't need protection. It just needs focus. And unity.

All we need is to stop panicking, admit our mistakes, and cut down on number of productions. We should focus on content and revive industries in Lahore, Islamabad, Quetta, and Peshawar. Their local talents and technicians must be employed by channels and producers so we can offer ingenious indigenous assorted tales to our viewers instead of rehashing ‘Urban Karachi Stories.’ This is the only way to unite the PTDI and restore our drama to its former glory.  Otherwise, the only saving drama industry would need would be from us.