Saturday August 20, 2022

From Big Bird to Team Muhafiz

June 26, 2022

The third episode of Disney’s Ms Marvel dropped on its Disney+ streaming service a few days ago. Ms Marvel is the superhero identity of Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Pakistani-American girl of first generation immigrant parents in Jersey City.

Of the 23 TV series Marvel spawned from its cinematic universe in recent years, Ms Marvel is its highest rated on Rotten Tomatoes. It has garnered enough praise and attention where people from some Reddit groups review are bombing it on IMDB (via an organized campaign to leave low reviews to bring down its average review rating). Their reasons range from Islamophobia to racism to the replacement of the blonde, white Caucasian female character of Captain Marvel / Carol Danvers with a brown Pakistani / South-Asian immigrant.

Clearly, Ms Marvel has struck a chord, particularly with young (and not so young) Muslims and Pakistanis / South Asians. In particular, it resonates with many who are or have grown up in the West struggling to strike a balance between the culture in their homes and the society they live in.

As an 80s / 90s child that grew up mostly in Pakistan, I admire the breadth of age appropriate and contemporarily relevant content that is available for toddlers, children, teenagers and young adults of all age brackets. Contrast that with the dearth of local content for children of all ages: it is soap opera dramas of puppy love among grown-ups or nothing. What little is available could not fill up the airtime on a dedicated children’s TV channel, like a local Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon.

The way children’s television content is developed has greatly evolved over the last few decades. A lot of TV shows were entertainment focused, relied on slapstick comedy with Roadrunner physics and contained little in the way of messaging or education. A lot of 70s and 80s shows changed that with good vs evil adventure stories and many like Yogi the Bear, He-Man, G I Joe, M A S K, etc, dedicating a minute at the closing to a public service announcement.

But the show that profoundly changed the way children’s programming was created was Sesame Street. In 1966, Sesame Street’s creators’, TV producer Joan Ganz Cooney and Carnegie Foundation vice president Lloyd Morrisett, stated the goal was to “master the addictive qualities of television and do something good with them.” Sesame Street first aired in 1969 on PBS and has been on air for 52 seasons.

While the programme is targeted at children, the educational and developmental expertise that goes into creating engaging and effective content is far from child’s play. Lift the curtain, and you will discover an impressive amount of research that goes into making these shows – from researching target audience, developing a systematic curriculum, determining the optimum duration, format, frequency of broadcast, to how children engage with TV and much more. This was followed by many more PBS shows for children at different developmental stages.

Another good example is Nickelodeon’s Blue’s Clues, named after an animated spotted blue dog, that took a ruthlessly disciplined approach to applying research methods to optimize learning and engagement in children. Its creators even tracked children’s eye movements to determine what worked and what did not and adjusted their approach for future episodes. This is the kind of expertise and effort it takes to create effective educational content, and that expertise is not inexpensive.

Sesame Street’s pioneering approach was adopted by many more shows that followed over the years – Blues Clues, Arthur, Teletubbies, WordGirl, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Cyberchase, Sid the Science Kid, Reading Rainbow, Dora the Explorer, etc. Each is notable for being targeted at children at different developmental stages but what truly distinguishes them from other TV shows made for children is the degree of child development research that goes into developing and constantly improving them. Sesame’s 30 years of research that went into informing their programming was published as a book (“G Is for Growing: Thirty Years of Research on Children and Sesame Street”), one I often like to recommend to ed-techs involved with content development for television.

As we grow up and tastes change, the format and the complexity of messages delivered through entertainment evolves and is repackaged in characters like the Marvel cinematic universe’s superheroes. I would even argue that it is the same pipeline that leads us to shows like Star Trek. ‘The Next Generation’s cerebral captain Jean Luc Picard is often presented with ethical conundrums that need some kind of win-win resolution. Captain Christopher Pike in Star Trek’s Strange New Worlds that is airing now is even nicknamed ‘Boy scout’. The packaging changes with target audiences, but since the dawn of time people have always loved to be inspired by heroic tales.

Even at home in Pakistan, where research that goes into creating children’s content on the higher end of the quality spectrum with the best of positive intentions is nowhere close to the prior examples, the production cost per minute of content ranges between $3,000-$5,000.

The government, the MoFEPT in particular, needs to stop patting itself on the back for how quickly it was able to launch an educational TV channel ‘Teleschool’ in 2020 during the pandemic to compensate for school closures. It needs to start airing useful, evidence-based content. That said, I cannot trust it to evaluate much less create that content itself, simply because it lacks the technical capacity for it. Without it, educational TV is a conduit lacking content.

A positive example of locally produced content is the upcoming Team Muhafiz, a collaboration of GEO and ISPR, with the tagline ‘Heroes to unite a nation – Enemies beware’, a clear indication of what direction the show will take. When ISPR met with the creators behind the comic Team Muhafiz around two and a half years ago they seemed impressed with the core values behind AzCorp Entertainment’s work: a team of everyday heroes – multi-ethnic, multi-faith, operating on values of tolerance, diversity, anti-extremism, all things that have disappeared from our society.

The heroes are the original comic team of Team Muhafiz comics and the core values remain the same, said AzCorp Entertainment, the creators of the original Team Muhafiz. For the coming year, the themes of the 10 episodes will focus on diverse but locally relevant societal issues such as extortion, drug abuse and addiction, the timber mafia, religious and ethnic extremism, terrorism, human trafficking, street crime and child labour. The diverse team of young people is shown coming together to fight these problems. As recent national headlines of cases such as the Sialkot lynching of a Sri Lankan man, the Dua Zehra case, etc keep underlining, these are undisputedly the most pressing issues of the day.

Kudos to team AzCorp and everyone else who persists and creates local comics despite the fact that the local market is as thin as it is, much less turning comics into animation which, according to its founder Imran Azhar, is what is necessary for the survival of the comic industry. This is the first time a local comic has been converted to animation. If anyone in Pakistan knows how to sell a message to the masses, it is the ISPR.

Pakistan right now feels like its internal doomsday clock is at two minutes to midnight. Back in the 80s the powers-that-be figured out that the way to a pliant populace is in part through schoolbooks. As late as 2009, Iqra publishers was reportedly printing pre-school textbooks that taught Alif for Allah, bay for bandook, jeem for jihad, hay for hijab etc. The recent announcement that ISPR is collaborating with Geo on ‘Team Muhafiz’ gives me a little hope that while it may have taken a few decades, lessons may have been learnt. Political parties appear to lack the spine to turn the ship around and are too fearful of incurring the wrath of a certain vocal segment of the public. No SNC or equivalent exercise can do that – just review the scathing criticism it received for its treatment and representation of other religions.

This of course is far from enough for those on the peripheries – stereotyped as terrorists, or (particularly students) ‘disappeared’ on slight suspicions without due process, or forcibly converted without their families getting access to justice or others that continue to be wronged. But even at this late hour, if there is an effort to back and push children’s content that instills tolerance and (hopefully) some progressive values, then I’ll take it.

The writer (she/her) has a PhD in Education.