Small screen, big scream. 50 years of TV in Pakistan, 1967- 2017. Dawn

7th October 2017
by Javed Jabbar

With round-the-clock, rush-to-screen images and sounds which invigorate the public sphere but also often mesh information and entertainment into discordance, TV in Pakistan completes half a century in 2017 with some stellar accomplishments and abject failures.

In an era when socio-economic fissures intensify and technologies make rapid advances, new media economics hint that the next half century will bring radical changes to how the TV medium will distribute its message.
Viewing on smart-phones has already leaped up .

TV intrusively determines content --- because news TV has become the big gallery to which the aggrieved public, politicians, lawyers, judiciary, armed forces and the private sector play and posture. Social media frequently overtake TV. While the TV medium --- and the media --- virtually become the message, the media themselves accept no responsibility for framing messages By inane, prolonged repetition of images and words, news TV devalues its inherent capacity to enrich public knowledge. It magnifies and promotes the trivial to a scale undeserved by the subject. Fortunately, the non-news channels, global, national and local, state and private, periodically offer material that richly educates and entertains.

Two-part evolution:
The evolution of TV in Pakistan over a 50-year period , 1967-2017 , can be divided in two parts .

Part I : 1967-2002 when Pakistan Television Corporation was the principal state monopoly.
Prior to Part I , there was a 5-year period when pre-PTV entities provided limited signals .

Part II : 2002-2017 , when privately-owned channels came into operation under PEMRA-issued licences . Currently, there are 88 channels , including about 40 news channels .

Within Part I, there was sub-division. The first ten years, 1967-1977 were so distinctive that even PTV could not match them in the next forty.With dynamic mobilization of a wide range of talent, imparting training and skills development to hundreds, introducing innovative programmes, presenting for the first time a vivid daily portrait of the country's varied and vibrant people, PTV 's first decade is aptly deemed the golden decade.

1990 onwards up to 2002, the original monopoly was partly diluted. Shalimar Recording Company, in which the Government of Pakistan holds 56 per cent shares, was permitted to instal terrestrial transmitters and re-telecast CNN to Pakistani audiences ,Shalimar was also allowed to sell its non-news/current affairs time to a private party, NTM , ignoring conflict-of-interest dimensions as NTM was aligned with an advertising agency.The SRC system is now leased to ATN.

Monopoly to cacophony :
The 2002-2017 phase represents a dramatic shift from one extreme of pure state monopoly to another extreme of private excess. The past 15 years have seen a phenomenal growth of private investment in TV and FM radio channels ; creation of thousands of new job opportunities ; training of manpower ( with some noticeable exceptions ! ) ; provision of multiple choices to audiences ; increased range of language options ; ; expansion of political and public discourse to become far more inclusive of diverse partisan viewpoints than it had generally been during PTV's news monopoly ; exposes of bad governance ; improved presentation ; occasionally well-written, directed and acted teleplays and serials ; audacious caricature and satire .

Yet breadth of choice is not accompanied by a proportionate depth in substance. There is proliferation without purpose, abundance without nuance, articulation without introspection.
If the state channel has a pro-government bias, many private channels, subtly or crudely manipulate their content , project their own biases and imbalance .
An obsession with events and incidents prevents examination of themes and trajectories, legitimizes sheer laziness under the mask of chasing the "news". Perhaps worst of all is the willful neglect of aspects of culture such as literature, classical music, painting, sculpture, theatre while fashion shows, pop music and cricket become more sponsorable content.

Based on a flawed revenue model of total reliance on income from advertising, private channels are infested by the virus of commercialism and cut-throat competition for ratings. This has led to a dumbing-down of the standards of debate and decorum in talk-shows. The valuable content-form of the carefully-researched, thoughtfully reflective film or TV documentary has almost disappeared. To be replaced by snappy "sorts ", "sound-bites" or "capsules" which are mostly superficial or sensationalist. Audiences are being brain-washed and conditioned with a surplus of conjecture, invective, mid-breaks, breaking news and futile frenzy. Attention Deficit Disorder is now a new ailment, compounded by channels, and by cell/smart- phones.

Pioneerism and acrimony:
Thus, over-all, evolution has proved to a mixture of trail-blazing pioneerism (by both PTV and private channels at different times ) as also merely imitative me-tooism , of a purposeful state role both at the outset in 1967 and in creating a turning point in 2002 when the state voluntarily ended its monopoly .

There is also an unseemly, unpleasant acrimony between some private channels. This conflict further falsifies the myth of self-regulation which is actually a mask for self-interest. For a sector that speaks loudest about transparency and accountability, there is little or nothing of either about the financial aspects of TV channels , about actual revenue , sources of advertising incomes and rates (except for the sole publicly - listed Eye TV / Hum TV).While , as private limited companies, all are obliged to file annual data with SECP and/or PEMRA , the public at large remains completely uninformed about possible conflicts-of-interest , questionable practices, et al.

Regulatory issues:
Official regulation of private channels through the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority

( PEMRA) is marked by : some creditable work in difficult conditions ;
indiscriminate issuance of licenses with financial elements of eligibility receiving far more weightage than the professional credentials of applicants ;
using license and renewal fees to unduly accumulate income ;
attempts at strict enforcement of codes and rules often paralyzed by High Courts too ready to grant stay orders that stay in place for years, instead of weeks ; anarchy in the sub-sector of religious channels that commenced without licenses and have become untouchable for the wrong reasons ; an inordinately large number of channels created by the blunder of permitting each of the 3500 or so cable distributors to operate 5 of their own content channels resulting in about 16,500 channels ( ? ! ) --- with rampant piracy of Hollywood/Bollywood content , and fragmentation of audiences ; and lack of true independence as a regulatory body from state and government .

PTV's path-breaking role:
But when the present is too much with us, we owe the past a visit . And in PTV's case, the past is still present . PTV's first fifty years are a panorama of progressive change and regressive stagnation , of some promises fulfilled and enormous potential still unrealized .As the electronic visual gazette of the Pakistani state , PTV is a significant part of the country's media history . From official documentarist to formal witness of public events to the promoter of an aspirational national singularity , PTV is a day-to-day recordist as well as an unrivalled decade-to-decade archivist of the country's evolution over half a century.

Several individuals made outstanding contributions to the evolution of TV in Pakistan. Headed by Aslam Azhar,whose exceptional gift for leadership this writer calls " createlevity " , this list includes several others who rarely appeared on-screen and were in some cases, also well-known but highly deserve being named here .

Exclusions are only due to space limitations or inadvertence. (Dozens of already well-known , on-screen persons are deliberately excluded . Programme concepts, production, direction : Agha Nasir , Zaman Ali Khan , Fazal Kamal , Akhtar Waqar Azim ,Kunwar Aftab Ahmed, Ishrat Ansari , Mohsin Ali , M. Nisar Hussain , Zaheer Khan, Shirin Khan , Schahzad Khalil , Muneeza Hashmi ,Sultana Siddiqui , Yawar Hayat , Shoaib Mansoor , Amir Imam , Khawaja Najmul Hasan , Farooq Qaiser. News, current affairs, sports : Burhanuddin Hasan, Zubair Ali, Muslehuddin , Farhad Zaidi , Athar Waqar Azim ,Zaheer Bhatti, Tashbihul Hasan , Iftikhar Ahmed. Engineering : Nazir Warraich . Set design : Jamil Afridi , Shahbaz Ahmed. Finance : Muteer-ur-Rahman Mirza. Marketing , sales : Shanul Haq Haqqee, Ziauddin Jeddy).

In 2017 PTV remains a sober , tonally-balanced broadcaster compared to the hysterical, screeching approach of private news TV channels. Succumbing to the breaking news option only when state and government events so require, but that too in a comparatively staid fashion, the country's first channel is, to this day , its most well-behaved one.

Stultifying strait-jacket:
The pre-dominance of governmental intrusion into internal management is evident in the fact that, of about 30 tenures of Managing Directors in about 50 years, only 6 individuals from within the specialized cadre of TV professionals were appointed as chief executives . Chairmen , with only a few exceptions, have almost always been Secretaries of the Information Ministry .

This facet keeps PTV in the strait-jacket of a state entity . In being unable to ensure balance and fairness in news content and analysis , state ownership and governmental control are lethal . PTV is prevented from being seen as credible, to the extent that when it does attempt balance, a strong pre-determined perception obstructs a fair evaluation of its unconventional content .

Still a monopoly:
PTV continues to enjoy the unfair monopoly of being the sole recipient of TV license fees . Automatically added to electricity bills , the license fees subsidy contributes between 65 to 70 per cent of total revenue. The corporation also receives annual allocations under the Public Sector Development Programme ( PSDP ) , not always fully utilized . But it likes to have its cake, and eat it too . Benefiting exclusively from the license fees, PTV also competes with private channels for commercial advertising revenue ( unlike BBC within the UK which is the sole recipient of license fees but does not accept advertising ) .

Conclusion :
This writer began his relationship with TV as a sceptic who soon converted willingly into a free-lance contributor. In the different contexts of association for over 50 years, as viewer, independent content-provider, advertising practitioner, legislative monitor, public- interest litigator, cabinet minister-cum-media policy-maker in 3 governments and drafter of the EMRA (1997) ,RAMBO (2000 ,which became PEMRA in 2002 ) ordinances, media critic, Supreme Court-appointed mediator, and Member of the SC-appointed Media Commission , one has had the privilege of a close, continuous nexus with this mass medium from several perspectives.

Four conclusions emerge . One : That in the swelling crowd of channels there is still not a single authentic public service broadcaster , independent of government and undependent on advertising . Two :That substantial, long overdue reforms for PEMRA , PTV , private channels and advertising should be conducted by Parliament, Judiciary, Government, advertisers, civil society and media/TV channels themselves, .Many such proposed reforms await action through the Media Commission's ecommendations pending with the SC since 2013. Three: That the basic policy changes one introduced as a cabinet minister in 1988-89 , 1996-97 , 2000 became as transient as personal tenures or governments because most could not be made structural and institutional , often due to reluctance at the highest level . Except for the eventual enforcement of PEMRA in 2002 but , alas, with mis-steps . Such as permitting unchecked cross-media ownership ,etc. Four: the more one studies the ambivalent role of TV, the more one returns to the scepticism about this medium which one began with. In other words --- when the more things change, do they remain even more the same?