Sunday, February 23, 2014

And the Screen Explodes

Category: Life

Growing up in the mid 80s in Hangu, our small town in the northwest, I was fascinated with the magic screen people called television. Most of my time after school was spent in front of that colorful screen showing local and national programs as well as English language shows from the English-speaking world: US, Britain, Canada, and Australia. I was naturally good at learning languages and always secured top marks in my English and Urdu courses. English TV shows were more appealing to me. It was a world of action and adventure: Knight Rider, Airwolf, Dempsey and Makepeace, Danger Bay, Fall Guy, and all the rest. It was magic.

Back then, there was a single national channel – PTV – in the entire country, a government-run institution. And that only channel offered everything for all ages and range of audiences: news, plays, cartoons, sports, music, and of course, my favorite English language shows and weekly feature films from Hollywood. There was something for everyone. All programs were censored according to PTV’s censorship policy, catering to the cultural sensibilities, yet allowing a fair degree of freedom to viewers. We were exposed to different cultures “safely”; you could see the world of your own culture in Urdu language shows, and the culture of the “developed west in English shows. In short, it was the “horn of plenty”.

In the early 90s, when PTV was at its peak of quality transmission, people heard of the first private TV channel appearing on the screen in big cities – the Shalimar Television Network (STN). Some viewers wee enchanted with this newbie on TV. It was something unique and refreshing seeing something other than PTV on their TV screens. STN lived a short life, however, as most people remained loyal to PTV – its long history of quality entertainment and rich variety of programs. And this loyalty remained until the end of the century. Then, things changed.

A wave of terrorism and subsequent war-on-terror swept across the region with the incident of 9/11 targeting NY and DC in 2001. The incident was promptly interpreted as a clash between two worlds, the Muslim East (for Pakistanis, it meant the entire Islamic world) and the non-Muslim west. So huge was the impact of this disaster that the entire Pakistani nation and its surrounding region felt a big vacuum of craving for news. Newspapers sold like hot cakes every day. And the paper owners started to think of expanding their business beyond the once-a-day paper. They could see that people wanted hour-by-hour, even minute-by-minute updates from every possible source. A single national channel news bulletins daily was hardly enough to do his job with its few.   

In 2002, the first private (mainly) news channel, Geo TV, appeared on the scene to fill the vacuum. And it was received with open arms by the news-hungry masses across the country. In comparison to the last two decades, the average middle-class Pakistani could now afford buying a TV set along with a satellite receiver; in cities, cable TV was already getting more popular and for a few dollars a month, one could get access to dozens of foreign channels, mostly from India but also from Europe, such as BBC, and the US, like CNN. The popularity of Geo TV sparked the interest of media owners and investors and in the next 10 years, television in Pakistan became a broadcasting zone flooded with private news channels, all running 24 hours and repeating nearly the same news and commentary programs over and over in sensational presentations with young and attractive anchors getting 6-figure incomes for hosting a single show a week while 40 percent of the country’s population rots below the poverty line.

Continued terrorism and anti-terror war, national political conflicts, and ever-rising crime, the craving for news has become endless in the country. Not only does an average Pakistani loves to watch national news but also sensational stories from its closest neighbor India and other areas with a shared culture and history. With news filling the space, there was no room for other programs on most of these channels. Consequently, separate channels have opened to keep people entertained. There are now separate channels for sports, kids’ programs, music, films, religion, and entertainment. More are being opened to cover lifestyle, business, fashion, and then a few for education. The screen has exploded per public demand and corporate opportunity.
Undoubtedly, people today are more aware of current affairs. Instead of taking news and commentary from a single state-run channel a few times daily, there is now a virtually endless transmission of news from dozens of different sources and stations. Yet, it’s not an all-gain scenario. The limits on people’s time and interest set by PTV were overthrown by the plethora of transmission from all across the country and abroad. 

Today, the average Pakistani kid can spend all day, and a good half of their night, in front of the screen because there is so much to watch; the cricket lover finds it hard to leave the screen and go spend time with his neighbor and friend because the game is always on; unlike old PTV’s shows, there is no weekly favorite play now that stands out by its quality and uniqueness, but an endless repetition of the same style of soap operas running 24 hours a day. And in fear of competition, even PTV has multiplied its channels as well as lowered its standards on transmission. The rarity is lost. It is not magic anymore, but a service you get for a small sum each month.

Long before leaving Pakistan, I had parted ways with the once-magic screen. Stepping into the world as a writer, perhaps, it was just switching of addictions – Internet instead of TV, a different kind of screen, where millions of websites and thousands of publications at my fingertip make it hard for me to leave my room, just like I couldn’t leave the screen back home as a kid. But back then, it was enchantment. Today I live in what sociologist George Ritzer calls a “McDonaldized” culture characterized by, among other things, disenchantment. There is plenty to consume, but little to truly enjoy, except in those moments when the screen is off, the night is silent, the cat sleeping next to me is purring, and in the dark in my room, with my eyes closed, I at once conceive an idea for a new story, a script, or a poem. Then, it’s magic.   


Posted by Prometheus on 02/23 at 11:44 PM | Permalink
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