TV channels and producers tend to be rushing about in the weeks preceding Ramazan.
Long-winded Ramazan transmissions need to be whisked together, balancing saintly sermons with entertainment to keep audiences sated. Frothy family dramas are shot, the episodes set to air daily.
People come home early from work all through the holy month and unwind after their fast by settling down in front of the TV. But they may be stuck watching old repeats this time around.
Perhaps not this time. With the country currently in lockdown, trying to counter the threat of a mass outbreak of the coronavirus, every industry is at a standstill – including the TV industry.
There is a chance that crowded Ramazan gameshows will not take place. Don’t expect to get entertained by people giving each other piggy-back rides in order to win a motorbike, if that’s your thing.
Special Ramazan dramas tend to be hugely popular – Hum Network’s Suno Chanda raked in high ratings two Ramazans in a row – but due to the lockdown, shoots for many of them could not start at all while others were left midway.
And fast-forwarding to two months from now, there’s a chance that there’ll hardly be any new content floating out on TV.
Abdullah Kadwani, director of one of the country’s leading production companies, 7th Sky Entertainment, elaborates: “The issue is that our TV industry is hardly ever prepared for a crisis. Under normal circumstances, actors tend to have back to back schedules, never leaving a few days free just in case they fall ill or are unable to come in on a certain day."
"Sometimes, actors suddenly leave projects in the lurch for a few days because they are asked to be part of a commercial. Commercials are a lucrative source of revenue for them – drama producers have no choice but to wait for the actors to return to the shoot.”
He continues, “Generally, only a portion of a drama is shot when it is floated out on to TV. The remainder of the filming takes place while the drama is still on air. It’s a last-minute, hand-to-mouth system which inevitably slows down projects and targets are not met. At 7th Sky, it is our utmost priority to complete projects on time but often, the people around us and working for us don’t understand this.”
“And now that we are in the grips of this virus, the TV industry is bound to suffer because of this disorganisation. Within my company, we prefer to have a project wrapped up 100% before it begins airing on TV. Last Ramazan, our drama serial Makafat was very successful and we have another season of it ready to air this Ramazan. But overall, across the Pakistani TV industry, the shoots of many Ramazan dramas have stalled."
"At least 25 to 30 people work together on the sets of a drama, including actors, technical crew and people providing support services. While the country remains at risk from the corona pandemic, we can’t have so many people working together in one place. In another few weeks, channels will have no choice but to begin repeating content.”
Some content has already started repeating; most ostensibly ARY Digital’s hit drama from this year, Mere Paas Tum Ho, having wrapped up earlier this year is going to begin airing every night on the channel from the end of this month.
Apparently this is due to ‘public demand’. This may be the case but soon, many more popular dramas are likely to run a second inning on TV.
“It’s inevitable,” observes Humayun Saeed, whose production company Six Sigma Plus brings out a considerable number of mainstream TV dramas.
“It’s going to take time before shootings can commence properly. Eventually, I feel that we will learn to function by following more stringent health practices but for now, content is bound to get repeated.”
For now, all production heads can do is try to get as much work completed as possible, while staying safe – as is the case with every business, around the world. Sultana Siddiqui, CEO at the Hum Network, describes how editing equipment has been set up at employees’ homes so that they can work from home.
“Hopefully, things will be better in a few more weeks but yes, we may show repeats if we have limited new content. A lot of our new dramas are 75% complete and we can start airing them, wrapping up the later episodes once the situation gets better.”
But even once things get better – and we don’t know if this may take weeks or months - the virus may make things less smooth sailing. Jerjees Seja, CEO of the ARY Digital Network, makes some astute observations: “Even once the lockdown ends, will actors who have traveled have to self-isolate before they return to set? We can’t force anyone to come to work under such circumstances.”
But work, says Jerjees, will have to go on. “We’ll take more precautions – and we may have to change the formats of some of our shows and come up with different content.”
One such ‘content’ that recently did very well for ARY Digital was a live ‘dua’, read out by renowned cleric Maulana Tariq Jameel, at a point when panic due to the coronavirus was at a high. According to Media Logic Pakistan, the prayer was seen by about 50 million people across the country.
There may be fewer TV dramas soon but with people staying home in order to stay safe from the virus, TV viewership is also on the rise. And when the going gets tough, the tough get going - and start devising new formats … special live prayers or perhaps, ‘socially distanced’ new shows. This may be a tough time for TV. But it may also lead it into new frontiers.