Prime Time: Morning Sickness

Prime Time: Morning Sickness

Turn on the TV in the morning if you dare and tune in to the morning show circus.

You may encounter a bride, swathed in red, with a beautician who declares that she will clean the ‘dulhan ki moochhein’ (the bride’s upper lip hair). Surf ahead and you may see 20 enterprising beauticians, bending over women reclining in chairs, slathering layers of make-up on them in a ‘beauty race’. On another channel, women dressed in heavily embellished lehngas are having a ball as they try to burst balloons in a contest.

You’re also likely to encounter men and women in their wedding best, attending an on-air wedding. They’ll scream, they’ll laugh and they’ll dance their socks off to 10 songs or more. You may see a bride and groom, smiles plastered on their faces as they prepare to step into matrimonial bliss — and it could get confusing because you saw the same couple getting married in another ceremony on another morning show just a month ago. Even some of the wedding guests were the same. This motley crew of actors is on the payroll of multiple shows and they are happy to dance, cry and get married repetitively every time it is required.

On a truly gory morning, you may even see a host in morbid black, her head covered while she attempts to tap into the supernatural world with her guests for the day, a learned ‘baba’ and a harried soul who is ‘possessed’ and keeps succumbing to convulsive fits.

There’s more, so much more: the merits of polygamy are advocated, dark-skinned girls are freely called ‘negroes’ and ‘habshans’, remedies for becoming fair-skinned are suggested by learned ‘doctors’, potato and cucumber skins are rubbed on faces in order to miraculously cure acne and makeshift ‘catwalks’ showcase glaringly blingy designs.

Pemra recently issued an advisory notice to television channels that underlined the need to show sensible content in their morning shows. Just how far the decision will go to reign in this bawdy representation of Pakistani society remains yet to be seen

The unabashed mediocrity and senselessness of it all reminds me of something that playwright Anwar Maqsood said to me a long time ago. “TV was once meant to show content that entertained but simultaneously elevated the intellect. Now, TV merely deteriorates the intellect even more.”

Pemra to the rescue

The host of Chai, Toast Aur Host Dino (R) with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (2nd from left) and other guests | Dawn News
The host of Chai, Toast Aur Host Dino (R) with Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (2nd from left) and other guests | Dawn News

This all must have been precisely what the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) had in mind when it recently issued an advisory notice to television channels, highlighting the need to show sensible content in morning shows. The statement observed that the shows lacked creative content, relying primarily on subjects revolving around ‘matrimonial issues, wedding, dances, fashion, private lives’ and that many of the themes were likely to create an ‘inferiority complex among the masses.’

All this makes sense. Pemra’s moral police often gets things wrong, issuing decrees that curb creativity, but there is nothing creative about the shows that are being aired on our TV channels for two hours (or more) every morning. It’s just strange that these shows have hitherto been allowed to run rampant for nearly two decades now. What took Pemra so long to wake up and realise that morning shows were veritably the bawdiest representation of Pakistani society, slowly rotting away the cerebral capacities of the audience? Oh well. Better late than never.

The ratings race

“We don’t only air weddings and dances in our morning show,” objects Nida Yasir, who has been hosting ARY Network’s Good Morning Pakistan for nine years now. According to Nida, there’s a lot more to her show than merely dhol dhamaka. “There are so many shows in which we try to help people and raise funds for their education or medical needs. We often invite doctors and discuss health issues. I’m also very careful about the terminologies that I use. In a make-up-centric show, I’ll tell girls to ‘follow their own skin tone’ and to ‘not look grey’. I never use words such as ‘black’ for skin colour because I know that this can be offensive to some people.

“I am only human, though, and when you have been coming live on TV for as long as I have, there are bound to be a few mistakes. We used to air episodes on the supernatural but then I myself started getting scared. Once, the lights in the studio burst while we were filming such an episode. At another point, one of the show’s administrators began to foam at the mouth. This was when I decided that I no longer wanted to work on supernatural themes.”

Nida continues, “But yes, we do stage live weddings on our shows because those are the most popular episodes. Shows with intellectual content or even celebrity guests don’t guarantee ratings the way a wedding show does. There was a time when we would air one wedding week per year but then Shaista Lodhi [another popular morning show host] began to constantly air weddings in her morning show for another channel. The ratings of my show started going down and I had no choice but to launch into a long wedding season of my own!”

Pemra’s moral police often gets things wrong, issuing decrees that curb creativity, but there is nothing creative about the shows that are being aired on our TV channels for two hours (or more) every morning. It’s just strange that these shows have hitherto been allowed to run rampant for nearly two decades now.

The infamous Sahir Lodhi, who hosts the Sahir Lodhi Show on TVOne, says that the fanfare on his morning show helps in gaining the attention of the audience and then he slowly tries to educate them about different topics. “Even long before Pemra had issued its notice, I had been feeling the need to change the audience’s taste and to change the format of my morning show,” he claims. “Slowly but surely, I have been trying to do this. There are games and music but we have also recently aired episodes discussing important topics such as mental health. I also like to give hope to my audience in some way or the other. A lot of the masses that tune into my show live difficult lives and, in my own way, I try to steer their lives into a positive direction. We are living in the information age and, above all, I consider it my responsibility to empower people with knowledge. It’s a slow process, though. People are accustomed to turning towards morning shows for entertainment.”

Sahir Lodhi | Arif Mahmood/White Star
Sahir Lodhi | Arif Mahmood/White Star

Jerjees Seja, CEO of ARY Digital Network, says that viewers always have the choice of changing the channel if they don’t like a certain show. “In Pakistan, the wedding season is our most festive season. Weddings are extensively planned out for months in advance. Women splurge out on hair, make-up and wardrobe. Lavish décor is selected, dances are prepared. Why shouldn’t we base our shows on a topic that the country enjoys so much? People who don’t want to see the on-air weddings — or game shows and beauty contests — can simply change the channel.”

But changing the channel often means proceeding on to another show that is more or less the same. Inane jokes, mindless games and a dance every 10 minutes — audiences love them, ads file in for the channel and the ratings rise high.

“Content deteriorates when you show people what they want to see.” — Ashfaq Ahmed

“Are ratings everything, though?” asks Anwar Maqsood. “You could show vulgarity and the ratings would go even higher. The whole nation would watch the show. But would that be the right thing to do?”

Qasim Shafique, producer of Chai, Toast Aur Host on Dawn News, says that he doesn’t really look at ratings. “On our show, audiences like topics that are relatable. Human interest stories tend to be liked a lot. I’m lucky that the channel doesn’t pressurise me into looking at ratings.”

Similarly, on Geo News, Huma Amir Shah and Abdullah Sultan host Geo Pakistan which relies primarily on news. “We are strongly opinionated and we mix things up, discussing pop culture along with more serious issues. I’m sure our ratings are not as high as that of commercial morning shows but we try to give people something to think about, something to take home with them,” says Huma Amir Shah.

Nida Yasir | ARY Network
Nida Yasir | ARY Network

In general, though, local morning shows predominantly lack intelligent content. “The host is hardly ever questioned and it’s very wrong,” admits Shaista Lodhi, one of Pakistan’s most popular morning show hosts who retired, she says, from the business about six months ago. Her last spate of morning shows was with the Geo TV Network.

“I started off the trend for weddings on shows, I’m the culprit,” she says. “But then it all went overboard. Even in a wedding-centric show, channels can abide by certain limits but that rarely happens. One of my very last shows was themed round how to get married in simplicity, within a small budget. It was a topic that I felt could be very helpful for viewers. But many times before, while enduring long wedding ceremonies on TV, I would wonder to myself what I was doing.

“I have hosted morning shows on veritably every major channel in Pakistan and, on every set, there is this pressure to win the ratings race. Often, as hosts, we end up negating our own personalities. We don’t want to wear heavily embellished clothes and slather on make-up early in the morning and shout and yell through a wedding ceremony. I’m a doctor and when I would sit next to a guest who would declare that depression could be cured by eating okra, I would cringe within. I would wonder if someday my medical license would be taken away because I was allowing unqualified people to speak out in my show.

“There is content that plays with people’s lives and health and creates delusions. A schizophrenic woman could get pronounced as ‘possessed’ or young girls are encouraged to think that their sole purpose in life is to please their husbands when they are advised to put on lipstick every evening or cook food in a certain way. There were make-up shows where the sole focus was on how to make small eyes look big. I felt like I was doing a crime.

“I observe some of the terminologies that are used at large by hosts,” Shaista continues. “A woman who has been unable to have children for 12 years, is described as ‘beychaari’ [wretched]. Instead of guiding her to live her life in constructive ways, she is further jostled towards mental stress. It’s just wrong. If at any point I wanted to add in a quote or make an intellectual reference, I would be told by my heads that no one wanted to hear it and that I needed to move on to catchier topics.

“Perhaps I’m able to say all this now because I’m no longer hosting a show. I got tired of it a long time ago but I couldn’t back out because I was a single mother at the time who had bills to pay. Now that I could leave the business, I immediately did so.”

“Teach the people what they want to see.” — Mustansar Hussain Tarrar

Regardless, the choice to monitor content on morning shows lies with channels. Pemra’s statement has been issued as ‘advice’ and it is up to channel heads whether they want to follow it or not. With high ratings come high earnings and there’s a big chance that the morning circus will continue on, completely disregarding the argument that they are doing a disservice to the nation.

There was a time, though, when mornings would be different. Many years ago, veteran author, actor and host Mustansar Hussain Tarar would be the nation’s morning fix, taking the stage on the only channel that was aired on TV at the time. Amiably, he would drift through topics that varied from current affairs to the latest music, books and advice to children. “I deliberately wore Pakistani clothes because I wanted my transmission to be representative of my country. And my primary purpose was to create awareness about our country and culture amongst the audience,” he remembers. “I would work hard on creating content. I wanted the audience to treat me like I was family. I would laugh with them, shed a tear if I felt like it. It won me my country’s love. The children who saw my show referred to me as ‘Chachaji’. Tariq Aziz and I were the first comperes to be awarded Pride of Performance.”

But fast-forwarding to an era where multiple channels contest against each other, could a morning show along the lines of Tarar’s transmission still gain the audience’s attention? “There is a way of presenting things,” he says. “A host needs to be well-informed, intelligent and witty. I don’t agree with the argument that this is what the public wants. Media is an extremely powerful medium and it can actually dictate to the public what it wants.

“I was once invited to Nadia Khan’s show and she said on air that I was the ‘father of all morning shows in Pakistan’. I corrected her and said that while one or two of the shows may be considered the offspring of my transmission, the others certainly were not. Most of the shows that are allowed on to our channels every morning are sickening.

“A morning show needs to have impact,” he continues. “I remember that I used to tell the children watching my show that the ones who studied were ‘baa-baa bachchay’ and that those were my favourites. Some years later, I was hosting an event where India’s Prime Minister was given the Guard of Honour by the Pakistan Air Force. After the event, I was leaving when I saw the PAF batch approaching me. They marched up to me formally and then their Commander gave me a Guard of Honour. He told me, ‘We are the baa-baa bachchay of your morning transmission. It is because of you that we are here’.

“At another time, I had shaved my head during my month-long Ramazan break and when I returned to the morning show, my hair hadn’t grown back entirely. I started off the show, quoting Aristotle and then I paused and quipped with the viewers, ‘Here I am, quoting Greek philosophy to you and all you can do is stare at my head!’ A few days later, the principal of a school in Islamabad stormed on to our sets and complained that I had created a huge problem for her because half the boys on her campus had now gone bald. Then, in my next show, I spoke to the children that they didn’t need to do so.”

It’s true that no present day host can claim to have such iconic status amongst his or her viewers. Channels and hosts are far too busy tussling over short-term profits to aim for long-term impact. Could Pemra’s advice be taken seriously and channels make a patriotic, deliberate effort to work long and hard at creating intelligent content for the many viewers that turn to TV every morning? Or perhaps we could all take a cue from Anwar Maqsood and hope that every morning, there is ‘loadshedding’ at the time of morning shows!