How has COVID-19 affected the drama industry?

May 10, 2020

Channels are hoping to provide fresh content to viewers post Ramazan, but how will that be possible? Instep speaks to decision makers about drama serials that were scheduled to air right after Eid ul Fitr.

Geo Entertainment released a special series, titled Dikhawa, on the first day of Ramazan. It is generating great response from viewers, as per ratings by Medialogic Pakistan.

Every year, months ahead of the holy month, planning and preparation for Ramazan-special transmissions begins with full zeal. Channels are usually in a rat race to provide unique content to viewers during the 30 days; whether the purpose is to promote the essence of Ramazan or to cash in on the opportunity is another debate. This year, however, it is more about survival than leading the game. Thanks to the global coronavirus pandemic the world is witnessing right now, things have come to an unprecedented standstill.

There was a time when long Ramazan transmissions, divided into multiple segments before and after iftar with huge crowds in attendance, could be seen on almost every local channel but such is no longer the case. Those who are keeping up with the trend of these programs and game shows, albeit in limited capacities and keeping SOPs in place, are also being criticized. Even though channels claim that they are taking precautionary measures and keeping SOPs into consideration, the optics do not reflect the sense of lockdown, as it should be observed.

Unfortunately, the effects of coronavirus are not just limited to these special transmissions. The lockdown came into play in mid-March, over a month before Ramazan, after which all drama productions came to a halt with no room for new projects to go on floors. Some drama serials such as Sabaat, Meherposh, Kashf and Raaz e Ulfat, that went on-air during the last week of March/first week of April, are still incomplete.

Hum TV’s Ramazan-special series featuring Osman Khalid Butt, Mira Sethi and Youtuber Arslan Naseer did not air because the shoot could not be completed. Hence, the channel opted to repeat Suno Chanda 1 and 2 that generated a lot of hype and amazing feedback in the last two years. However, the response this time around is not as great as it was when the series initially launched in 2018 while viewership is also limited this year.

“We were very excited for the (new) Ramazan special drama; it was going to be an interesting project,” shared Maimona Siddiqui, Chief Content Officer at HUM Network Limited, adding that it was unfathomable that they would have to stop the shoot due to a global pandemic. “The Ramazan series worked out really well for us the last two years. We are now airing Suno Chanda in the 10-12pm slot, which is easy viewing. People were really looking forward to season 3 of the series though; they thought there was going to be a third season.”

Resuming the shoot of the special series that did not hit TV screens during this Ramazan is not a priority until things get better, according to the CCO. However, speaking of Hira Mani-starrer Kashf that is presently on-air, she informs that around 80 per cent of the drama was shot prior to the lockdown while they are yet to shoot the remaining eight episodes. “We are good for the next two-three months as far as Kashf is concerned while Sabaat, Tarap and Tum Ho Wajah that recently went on-air have been shot completely and are in edit right now,” she explained.

“Everything was so sudden; no one could have predicted it,” Maimona continued. “We are hoping that some relaxation might come after Eid and then we will see how exactly we can work things out, if at all. It is not just about the actors or the crew, the shoots are location-based so we have to be extra careful. No shoots are taking place right now except for dubbing sessions, if need be.”

Qasim Ali Mureed directorial, Prem Gali, with Farhan Saeed and Sohai Ali Abro in the lead, has been pushed to a later on-air date since a very important sequence could not finish due to the sudden outbreak of coronavirus.

Maimona Siddiqui also revealed that the upcoming drama Zebaish, written by Bushra Ansari and directed by Iqbal Hussain, is currently being edited and is going to be the first drama to air after Eid on the channel.

However, the Urwa Hocane and Imran Ashraf starrer Mushk that was also scheduled to launch around the same time, might not air anytime soon since the shoot hasn’t wrapped up. Imran, who has also written the script, informed Instep that about two and half episodes are left to shoot and they are hoping to resume soon or else the drama will have to face a long delay. Similarly, a Zahid Ahmed and Sonya Hussyn drama, which was also in the pipeline to air post Eid is being postponed. Though it is complete, it may not release in the near future, due to technical reasons, according to director and producer Barkat Sidiki.

Nonetheless, the channel’s CCO maintains that the situation is not too gloomy since editing is not an issue. She, however, admits that this year is not the same for channels. “The numbers are not comparable to last year; every business is affected right now and so are advertisements. But I don’t think a lot of channels will hold back because of this reason if they have their dramas shot. There is a commitment with viewers that we need to fulfill,” she stressed.

One and a half months into the lockdown, one can clearly see a dearth of new content on TV as more dramas (Alif Allah Aur Insaan, Yaarian, Mere Paas Tum Ho and Cheekh) are having a re-run during these days. Channels are struggling to offer fresh content due to this sudden turn of events; some more than others.

One upcoming project, the Farhan Saeed and Sohai Ali Abro starrer Prem Gali, produced under the banner of Six Sigma Plus, was scheduled to launch this Eid ul Fitr. However, director of the project, Qasim Ali Mureed informed that just when they were about to prepare a very important set against the backdrop of a gali (street), coronavirus took over. This resulted in a delay while they were all set to release the teasers and promote the project.

“I will most probably resume shooting by the end of this month,” he informed over a telephonic conversation with Instep, adding that dramas that are already on-air are a priority as far as shooting is concerned. “Prem Gali is an extension of Aangan; it is very family-oriented and has an extended cast. There are about 50 people in presence while filming, which makes it very challenging for us to hit the set in this situation. Even if we follow the SOPs, we have two actors – Qavi Khan and Shamim Hilaly – who are very fragile and we are pushing their shoots ahead.”

The director revealed that they have shot 60 per cent of the upcoming drama that has a beautiful script, he claims. “It has a very realistic arc; it is about love and relations,” he added, informing that Prem Gali is a long project with 30 episodes. “There is about 40-45 days of shoot left but after over of week once we resume, we would be in a position to air it.”

Moving on, dramas that recently went on-air on Geo Entertainment – Muqaddar, Meherposh and Raaz e Ulfat in particular – finished shoots in advance, as is the case with most of their projects. In fact, the channel launched a special series called Dikhawa, produced by Abdullah Kadwani and Asad Qureshi, that commenced on the first day of Ramazan. According to ratings, it is generating great response while season two of last year’s acclaimed project, Makafaat, helmed by 7th Sky Entertainment, is also going strong during the Holy month. As the titles suggest, these projects feature content that is morally and socially driven, aiming to send out strong inspirational messages.

Hira Mani-starrer Kashf, presently on-air, was shot around 80 per cent prior to the lockdown, with the remaining eight episodes yet to be filmed.

According to producer Abdullah Kadwani, it is very important to inculcate these values in viewers. “There are hardly any dramas that focus on family values, religion and morals these days; we have a huge audience in Pakistan that appreciates such content,” he asserted.

This is evident in the ratings the channel has generated in the last two months, that is, March and April 2020. It stands on number one among the top 15 local channels, according to Medialogic Pakistan, the only overnight TAM (Television Audience Measurement) data provider company in Pakistan. The channel’s recently concluded drama serial Munafiq generated record-breaking numbers despite not having a signature cast. According to the producer, it stood at number two after Mere Paas Tum Ho.

The producer also reflected that though they had bigger plans for Ramazan transmissions, they are content with what they could come up with, despite the challenges. “People are upset and sensitive right now so we are trying to keep things simple this time without worrying about ratings,” he maintained, adding that they are following the guidelines given by PEMRA.

However, as far as future projects and their shoots are concerned, Abdullah Kadwani admits that the situation is extremely uncertain and it is very difficult to plan anything in advance.

“We are trying to find a way forward and resume the shoots of dramas that were already on floors,” he informed. “But despite our willingness, it is not entirely in our control to make things work since everyone involved is not on the same page. Location is also a key issue right now; owners are not agreeing to let us shoot (on their properties) and rightly so. Around 90 per cent of the shoots are based in DHA and we are not allowed to work there as per their policy. We cannot jump to another location for shoots that were already in progress; we need to maintain the continuity.”

He furthered, “We cannot sit back and wait for the situation to get better; we will have to work, keeping health and safety precautions in mind. If this continues for long, the industry is going to suffer. We can survive this but the technicians, spot boys and line producers can’t and we need to take a step for them by limiting the risks as much as we can. This is a wake-up call for all of us. We’re never prepared for such pandemics; almost everyone does things at the last minute. People in the field are not organized, some are laid back. Their dates are so packed, they don’t leave margin for any changes in between and have multiple projects lined up, one after the other.”

There are lessons to be learnt from every crisis and if anything, the coronavirus pandemic and the havoc it has wreaked, has taught us the value of time, discipline and measured planning. The entertainment industry does work on an eleventh-hour mechanism and while some things are unavoidable at a time like this when survival of the human race is at risk, it is production companies with strong foundations and concrete plans and visions for the new world that will inevitably emerge, which will manage to bounce back.

We tried to reach out to the producers at ARY but no one was available for a comment.

How has COVID-19 affected the drama industry?