Is ‘intellectual television’ then an oxymoron today? Are the TRP-obsessed commercial television channels right in their assessment that the dumber the content the more likely it is to sell?
I remember sitting in front of television as a young kid absorbed by the sharp questions and quick pace of the quiz show, Jahan Numa, hosted by Naeem Bukhari at a time when he was an endearing, everyman’s intellectual, not the politicised figure of today. It was intelligent programming at its best, educational without being a drag, and PTV produced such programmes and hosts seemingly at will. Today, there is barely a shred of programming on television that is similarly smart.
Is ‘intellectual television’ then an oxymoron today? In a world full of screens vying for our attentions, what is the fate of content that seeks to absorb audience interest for a sustained period of time? Is there room for programming that can engage our cerebral crannies beyond the lazy titillation of melodramatic soap operas and gift-dispensing celebrities, or are the TRP-obsessed commercial television channels right in their assessment that the dumber the content the more likely it is to sell? These are some of the pressing questions around the state of Pakistan’s television media today.
It isn’t that Pakistan is a stranger to intelligent content. In fact, Pakistan Television has a grand history of popular programming like Jahan Numa, shows that simultaneously educated and entertained. While Jahan Numa was shown in the 6pm slot, fairly near prime time, other greatly popular ‘brainy’ shows like the iconic Kasauti were aired at 7:30pm, a time when most people sat in front of their television sets at the end of the day to watch the only channel available to them. Obviously, seasoned producers at PTV felt that a show based entirely on cerebral content was popular enough to warrant a primetime slot.
For nearly a decade the infotainment show, Neelaam Ghar, aired every Thursday at 8 o’ clock right in the middle of prime time. Neelaam Ghar, the precursor of popular game shows of today, like Jeeto Pakistan and Inaam Ghar, would start with a solid block of current affairs, history and religious questions. Its iterations of today depend on riddles, tongue twisters and assorted gimmicks to keep audiences interested.
While Tariq Aziz, the host of Neelaam Ghar knew thousands of Urdu couplets by heart and recited them aptly at will, that kind of literary prowess is impossible to imagine in the age of Fahad Mustafa and Amir Liaquat Husain, watching film Ghalib not withstanding. Even more astonishing was the wide range of knowledge in disparate subjects like science, history, arts and literature displayed by the team of Kasauti, comprising Qureshpur, Iftikhar Arif and Obaidullah Baig, intellectual figures who were no less revered than the leading heroes of Pakistani television plays.
Pakistan’s age-old love-hate relationship with the US meant Pakistanis viewed a lot of American content on their television. Mixed with light-hearted comedies like Full House and Perfect Strangers were scientifically complex but compelling shows like Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, translated into Urdu and aired on PTV every Sunday. In comparison, the rather insipid programming of today’s Voice of America is a step backward.
On the science side in Pakistan, the debonair Laeeq Ahmed presented Science Magazine, a television show that according to one article turned Laeeq into ‘a sensation amongst the youth of his time’.
But these are all relics of an era when attention spans weren’t quite as fitful, and the proliferation of private channels and internet hadn’t shortened attention spans to a grand total of two minutes. Or so they say. If intellectual content has no space in the world of 140 (now 280) characters, and the remote control, why do magazines like The New Yorker that rely largely on long-form pieces thrive online? After all, there can be no more fickle a space than the internet.
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The online success of longform, so much so that even a clickbait hungry web portal like Buzzfeed has a dedicated section for long features, goes to show that there is still demand out there for content that scratches below the surface. On the television side, this has been proven true by the BBC’s continued success. A channel not reliant on advertising money, BBC is chartered by the government. Its charter includes sustaining citizenship and civil society, promoting education and learning, and stimulating creativity and cultural excellence, all jobs that the BBC continues to perform optimally.
While there have been reports of the broadcasting network facing a financial crunch, and one of its most popular channels, Channel 3 was made to go online only, BBC still stays one of the most reliable and popular sources of measured news and entertainment around the world without compromising on the level of its intelligence. Its popular quiz show QI is now in its fifth season, boasting erudite and culturally savvy entertainers like Stephen Fry and Alan Davies.
The reason for BBC’s continued ability to produce popular programming of a high calibre is that it combines high-tech and superior production values with original ideas, without getting stuck in clichéd formats that worked once.
To their credit, certain Pakistani television channels have attempted an ‘update’ on intellectual content with shows such as Khabarnaak and Mazaaq Raat that have had erudite anchors with bonafide academic or journalistic credentials like Aftab Iqbal, Naeem Bukhari and Jugnu Mohsin, but the novelty of pairing them with Punjabi stage actors wears off fast, creating a dissonance that isolates audiences of both high-brow and low-brow television.
Classical music, light geet and ghazal, poetry, in-depth interviews that last an hour, mushaairaas, bayt baazi, literary shows, intelligent film reviews, philosophical and scientific exploration, even tech, gadgetry and gaming, popular activities amongst Pakistani youth are all largely ignored by private television channels who seem to care little for depth or creativity. PTV, on the other hand, seems obsolete and fossilised.
The people of Pakistan still have a hunger for educational content delivered smartly and entertainingly. The fact that news shows are so popular isn’t just because they are Pakistan’s version of reality shows with live fisticuff exchanges, abusive tirades and real-time conflict. A less cynical view of their popularity suggests an audience desirous of content that engages the mind. If channelised properly, viewers who are willing to wrestle with complex ideas like Panama Papers, constitutional amendments, NROs and democracy, could be equally interested in history, art and the sciences if they are presented to them in a creative and well-researched format.