This article was originally published on 8th June, 2017.
Ramazan transmissions have barely begun and within a week PEMRA notices are flying as channels jump into a frenzied competition for ratings.
Putting aside each channel's so-called game shows, the real games are being played by hosts who use one gimmick after another to retain the public’s interest in what has become the high profit point of the broadcasting season.
Let’s start with a small survey of the current controversies brewing.
PEMRA asked producers of Fahad Mustafa's show Jeeto Pakistan to explain why the show started an hour early despite a ruling that game shows must start at 9pm, while Sahir Lodhi has been asked to explain his love/hate for Quaid e Azam.
While these might be called major incidents, minor skirmishes with what might be termed the boundaries of good taste and the spirit of the season have also been bubbling away under the surface.
In their Ramazan shows Aamir Liaquat and Fahad Mustafa have now started a supremely tiresome game of taking regular, thinly veiled jibes at each other. All of this might have been mildly amusing if they displayed any wit or eloquence but sadly they don't.
The man who last Ramazan force-fed a contestant mangoes, simulated a girl killing herself and was only recently banned for accusing liberal activists of blasphemy and anti-Pakistan activities has just resurfaced with a big game show on Bol TV. This would of course be Aamir Liaquat. His new game show on Bol TV is bluntly titled Game Show Aisay Chalay Ga or “this is how you run a game show”, and is a show where he gives away not just any old car but Mercedes Benzes, houses and of all things small aircraft.
Liaquat got straight to the point in his opening monologue; he had a few taunting words for PEMRA, some disparaging comments about cricketers Wasim Akram and Shoaib Akhtar (who have replaced him at his old stomping ground Geo TV) and laid down a gauntlet that he would “eat up” all the other shows. If that wasn’t enough, Liaquat and Fahad Mustafa have now started a supremely tiresome game of taking regular, thinly veiled jibes at each other.
All of this might have been mildly amusing if they displayed any wit or eloquence but sadly they don't.
Money, money, money
Meanwhile their numbers grow and so does the line of contestants willing to participate in increasingly humiliating games and exchanges for a Rs10,000 coupon, or the hope that Aamir Bhai, Fahad Bhai, Wasim Bhai or Shoaib Bhai will hand them the keys to a car.
Now, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with game shows. When done right they can be a source of good family fun and a comparatively innocuous way to let off a little steam and relax after a long day fasting. Watch a well-conceived game show from any country and the host will gently tease the contestants, setting up light-hearted banter that never crosses the line into disrespect.
There is nothing intrinsically wrong with game shows. But in Pakistan it seems as if anything goes, like Aamir Liaquat comparing people's looks to djinns and telling them to get liposuction.
However in Pakistan it seems as if anything goes.
Aamir Liaquat is the worst offender and regularly humiliates contestants; he compared one man’s looks to a djinn and told another to use their Rs10,000 for liposuction on live TV. However offensive he is, he is amply rewarded for this behaviour with the kind of ratings normally seen during India Pakistan cricket matches.
Lost in all this cheap sensationalism is the essence of this month of self-discipline and self-denial.
So who is to blame? Who rewards these people despite their inappropriate behaviour?
The sad truth is, it’s the audience. It’s easy enough to turn the tide against such behaviour, instead of laughing at their lack of manners and railing against these crude displays why not use the power of the remote?
On the flipside if channels are making a profit from the captive audiences provided by this holy month surely they are obliged to keep up standards of appropriate behaviour and responsible programming. Since game shows are not going away… yet, it's time channels hired better writers to help script these shows, so fewer off the cuff comments and spur off the moment mistakes happen.
An even better solution might be to cut down the long running time of these game shows and bring back more sensible programming options. The biggest surprise this month is the lack of drama serials addressing serious issues.
Ramazan is an incredibly special month, when an estimated 1.6 billion Muslims voluntarily abstain from eating and drinking, sacrificing sleep and rest, so why not give them something entertaining and informative instead of the steady diet of mind numbing mush?
There are plenty of well educated, charismatic and well-spoken religious scholars both in Pakistan and in the Pakistani diaspora throughout the world who could lend this season’s programming some much needed depth and gravity but are being ignored in favour of celebrities.
There is an arbitrary separation of before and after iftar, which is understandable to a certain extent. People do want to lighten up after breaking fast but surely standards of acceptable behaviour don’t change just because people have stopped fasting.
Cashing in on religious sentiment
But that would be losing out. After all, hosting a Ramazan show in Pakistan is not only a very lucrative proposition for a presenter, but a magical event when suddenly everything they did the rest of the year is airbrushed away in an ethereal bright, blurry white light.
If you’re a female a dupatta suddenly appears precariously attached to a couple of strands of your hair, while both genders gain the ability to explain religious concepts in a condescending tone to an audience who earn less in a year than that presenter does in a month.
While the sacred month is acknowledged as a time of repentance and forgiveness it always strikes a distinctly discordant note to see normally secular and glamourous stars like Ayesha Omar hold forth on religion.
What else is weird about Ramazan TV? Well, if you’re a female a dupatta suddenly appears on your head, while both genders gain the ability to explain religious concepts in a condescending tone to an audience who earns less in a year than that presenter does in a month.
Actress Ushna Shah recently wrote a critical Facebook post about fake people who “sell" religion during Ramazan or suddenly become overtly pious while acting like jerks the rest of the year. She has even hinted at directors who have tried to hit on her but are now sending out “Ramazan Mubarak” messages.
This kind of hypocrisy Shah has highlighted is nothing new but is particularly offensive and disrespectful in a month where everyday people are struggling to fast through long summer days with huge power outages and rising food prices.
Getting it right should be pretty simple. Why aren't we doing it?
To be fair there are a few decent programming options on TV like Ahsan Khan’s Ramazan show on PTV and so far apart from a few silly incidents Geo’s Ramazan transmissions have been moderate and inoffensive. However the majority have been geared to the lowest common denominator in a month when people are supposedly trying to reach higher goals.
The real question raised by all of these incidents is why can’t channels think of more creative ways of programming than just game shows?
It's absolutely possible for programmers to engage with the spirit of the season with the same zeal that they promote materialism and greed. Ordinary people have called for a boycott of Khaadi, yet those same people are willing to pay thousands for an Eid outfit from another brand that may just follow the same practices. Why not address this issue, or loadshedding perhaps? In fact the very real difficulties of everyday life seem to have been whitewashed out of sight by the shiny glare of all the expensive prizes on show.
Why not visit schools for the disabled, the blind and the poor and distribute a few of those highly prized Rs 10,000 vouchers after iftar there? Instead of giving away cars, why not give away prosthetic limbs to those in need or ask their sponsors to invest in small charity projects that actually make a difference in underdeveloped areas?
Perhaps most importantly: in a month geared towards maximizing worship, how about opening up discussions on tolerance and learning how to deal with religious issues without extreme or violent responses?
How wonderful it would be if these TV shows could highlight and reward the youth and leaders engaged in projects that lift up society and raise awareness about issues like domestic violence and mental health. It was particularly heartening to see a differently-abled presenter on PTV's Ramzan transmission, offering prizes in a wheel chair. This kind of acceptance and inclusivity should be part and parcel of not just this season but the whole year round.
Perhaps most importantly of all in a month geared towards maximizing worship, how about opening up discussions on tolerance and learning how to deal with religious issues without extreme responses?
With the recent public lynching of Mashal Khan and the rising level of terrorist attacks around the world, this Ramazan presents the perfect opportunity to open up discussions about moderation and respectful dialogue by engaging with actual religious scholars.
While there is nothing wrong with giving away grand prizes and having fun, the focus on winning at any cost seems to be pushing important issues and the less fortunate amongst us, already marginalized by society, even further back in to the shadows.