Aurora Magazine

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Published in Jul-Aug 2014

No noodle soup for the soul

Book review of "The Game Changer – A Brief History of Television in Pakistan"

In his foreword to the book, journalist Talat Hussain calls its subject “one of the biggest national stories of our times.” But Tanya Anand’s The Game Changer – A Brief History of Television in Pakistan is more CliffsNotes than a story, let alone a true study.

This is all the more tragic because of Anand’s own credentials. A former TV and film producer, director and distributor, she studied film and media management in Canada as well as the UK. And, to top it off, film runs in her blood (she is the daughter of Eveready Group of Companies’ Satish Anand; granddaughter of film producer J.C. Anand).

To be fair, Anand tries her best to address the very significant issues she flags: the impact of liberalisation on media owners, audiences, advertisers and public space. But her grand ambition is woefully let down by the erratic selection of source material and the consequent noodle soup of opinion-factoid-hearsay.

While she correctly highlights the paucity of published reference material, her dependence on articles and interviews published in magazines (Aurora, primarily) and newspapers – supplemented by references to Wikipedia and PTV marketing brochures – is jarring.

First, even the best researched pieces have journalists talking to specialists for insight into an industry, so why an insider would need to cite generalists quoting specialists to shore up her arguments is unclear. (This reliance is all the more puzzling since personal access to most of the people mentioned would presumably not have been a problem for Anand.)

Second, while solid data can sex up even unsexy arguments, how can a reader who has just read pages and pages about the politicisation of PTV and its lack of independence, trust its figures on outreach, which are specifically designed to promote sales? (And equally inexplicably, why quote a nine-year-old interview of a media executive for the government’s claims regarding the GDP growth rate in 2005?)

Third, even where Anand conducts interviews herself, there seems to have been little thought given to the selection of interviewees. (For the section on news channels, for example, she interviewed reporters who, despite being well informed, are generally lowest in the broadcast media pecking order, and thus unlikely to bring wider perspective to the debate.) Even when she speaks to the people who changed the game – Hum TV’s Sultana Siddiqui, for example – the conversation meanders along generalities: the soft-focus promo rather than gritty, hard news.

With the analytical framework so flaccid, the flatness of the analysis – “since PTV is a public limited company with its shares owned and controlled by the Federal Government, one can see how easy it must be for those at the helm of the government to influence the channel for their benefit” – and the resort to homilies – “… private channels offered a more representative picture of the [sic] urban society through their soaps, talk shows, dramas etc. than PTV” – was inevitable.

Had Anand engaged more fully with some of the more promising material, this book could have been different. Although her focus is from 1999 to 2009, the 35 years of PTV’s monopoly, mined properly, has the potential to yield useful insights into why television in Pakistan has evolved the way it has.

The ‘social engineering’ Anand and many media experts now expect PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority) to undertake, for example, stems from what was once Ayub Khan’s PTV’s raison d’etre: fostering a sense of nationhood by developing a cohesive ‘national identity’. Similar aims were subsequently taken up through PTV’s ‘socially relevant’, politically conscious ‘entertainment’ programming in the 80s – the anti-feudalism drama Waris, the political satire 50-50 and the student politics-centric drama Tapish, for example.

The gravitation towards a cause larger than oneself continued to dominate television throughout the 90s. (Remember the ISPR-funded Alpha Bravo Charlie?) Even the advent of liberalisation in 1999, as Anand argues, was triggered by Indian media propaganda during the Kargil war and the realisation among ‘national agencies’ that Pakistan needed a vibrant media to counter the cross-border media onslaught, both on its own people and the larger global community. Clearly, even the newer, freer media of 2009 (the period the book covers) is not free from the responsibility of ‘educating and informing’ and is expected to set certain goals above commercial interests. However, this background – how, why, whom – and the evolution of the reflexive relationship between the deep state and the media needed further exploration (it would have been useful for even those looking to understand the politics of the current standoff between the military establishment and the media).

This is why Anand’s insistence on looking at PTV programming through a ‘commercially driven’ prism seems disingenuous. It wasn’t that PTV couldn’t do Bollywood-style dramas; it simply had a different agenda. Its content range may have been ‘limited’ but this wasn’t because its producers were ‘on salary’ and could get away with low quality products (were this true, ex-PTV producers, directors and technical staff wouldn’t still be ruling in the new media environment). There was a point to ‘bland fare’ religious programming, agricultural production and Allama Iqbal Open University, which went beyond TRPs and advertising slots.

And this is the primary problem with Anand’s book: there is no politics in it. The players in the media game – globally as well – have always been larger than life; their motives and ambitions have been about more than just ad revenue. Cheaper satellites, easier financing and greater ad spend as a consequence of the consumption-led boom in the 2000s did contribute to the mushroom growth of the channels. But the Musharraf regime’s fear of cross-media ownership – and the phenomenal powers it would bestow on newspaper owners – paralysed the great liberalisation project despite Kargil, despite the Indian cultural invasion via saas-bahu dramas and despite the aid dollars flowing in. Yet, Anand would have us believe individual producers and directors matter more and ad rupees are everything. (In fact, so focused is she on the need for ‘efficiency’ in advertising, she forgets to mention the basic structural flaw in the Peoplemeters system: there are only 2,600 in a population of 190 million, those too, only in the urban centres.)

Consider the channel proliferation phenomenon since 1999. The most important growth story is that of news channels, not entertainment. While Anand recognises this anomaly, she chooses to focus on Badar Ikram and Satish Anand instead of Mir Shakeel-ur-Rehman or Sultan Lakhani. And so she talks of the driving down of advertising rack rates in a competitive environment rather than the reasons for this anomaly: Zia-ul-Haq’s children are so used to being denied information and being lied to, they need multiple sources and multiple verifications.

While Anand does try to weave in references showing how the development of the Pakistani media mirrored contemporaneous global trends – for example, the charge of sensationalism against live transmissions – here she is let down by flabby editing. From the events following Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in 2007, for example, the narrative jumps to an academic discussion of media ethics in live reporting… in the US. In 1999. (Since the flip comes without even a transitionary sentence, the time travel and continent hopping leaves the reader completely disoriented and unable to distinguish between the desi and the foreign.)

Even when she is talking about just Pakistan, the narrative jumps back and forth between years and decades, with few markers, which end up demolishing the argument and alienating the reader. (She gives the launch date of Geo as 2000, instead of August 2002.) Punctuating this flow are Anand’s favourite phrases – “the entertainment-starved Pakistani audience”, “the virtuous cycle of profitability” and “competitive duplication” – that crop up like holey socks when you are already late.

This entertainment-starved Pakistani is unamused.

The Game Changer – A Brief History of Television in Pakistan

By Tanya Anand

Ushba Publishing International

135pp. PKR 665

Available at Liberty Books