Changing channels

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Gilgit, October 1993 and the Hunza Inn. Cold wet and with a bicycle in need of maintenance having been ridden up the Karakoram Highway – all the way from Karachi. Assorted travelers cuddling their cups of scalding sweet tea and an ancient television high up on a wall and my first introduction to the TV news in Pakistan.

It was strikingly similar to the Syrian TV news I had seen a year earlier – bland to the point of soporific and mostly a catalogue of ‘what the government did today’. The newsreader(s) were hewn from blocks of solid boredom and delivered the script in a plodding monotone. Most of us ignored it; I made a diary note that I looked up before starting to type this as there was something of a déjà-vu experience in the last 24 hours.

Fast forward a quarter of a century to January 2019 and an accidental alighting at just the right time on the PTV English news channel. Oh dear. There, frozen in time and diction to say nothing of the ponderous presentation, were the grandchildren of the presenters I had first seen in the mountains a quarter-century before. I am sure they are perfectly decent ordinary people with families that do the shopping and fuss over their kids and have their ups and downs like all of us…but they change. Transmogrify. Assume the mantle of an alternative being in another universe disconnected to the one I live in when they pass through the portals of their workplace.

The autocue rolls, the lights change and they are off, trundling through the litany of – mostly – what the government did today. Time travel in a single easy move. And this is the channel by which Pakistan speaks in English to the rest of the world, and although there are no published figures it is reasonable to assume that they are nowhere near those of the alternatives – CNN, BBC and Aljazeera to name but three. Even the Chinese manage to put together interesting telly in the Queens English.

As lost opportunities go it does not get much more lost – the irony is that having watched the news to the bitter end it was followed by one of the best-informed discussions I have seen for a long time on the situation in Afghanistan and the role Pakistan has to play on the global stage in one of the defining conflicts of the 21st century. The debate was well moderated and featured people who really did know what they were talking about. It was spoiled by an inappropriate and distracting use of a split screen that added nothing to the quality of the discussion. I came away better informed about a complex conflict and wondered how many other analysts saw and heard what I did – very few would be my guess.

Moving swiftly on it was a wander up and down the Urdu spectrum. Although my conversational Urdu is pegged at being able to do the shopping without too much difficulty my general comprehension is fairly good – tho I struggle with rapid-fire Punjabi. And it was ‘Oh Dear’ time again.

Having a family besotted with the soaps which are watched in rapt silence and close attention in their half of the house I had at least a passing familiarity with what was on offer. And it was almost uniformly dreadful. (Please note that I am aware that some gritty material does get covered from child abuse to domestic violence that according to PEMRA, the National Nanny, has provoked numerous complaints. None – shows, that is – showed up in my trawl.)

A couple of hours spent on the most popular cable channels was enervating in the extreme. An endless procession of ‘family dramas’ that appeared to involve all the same characters irrespective of channel – or even language I discovered – that always had a comedy aunt and uncle in the mix and somebody wearing a silly hat that made occasional slapstick interventions. Theatrical skills, like acting for instance, were almost entirely absent. Lines were delivered by passing the words along yes a line of ‘actors’ who stood across the stage and emoted into the fourth wall in a manner that was skill-free and stilted and reminded me of the TV of my childhood in the 1950’s. And it dawned on me…

This was children’s telly but for grown-ups. Presumably pitched at the lowest common denominator for the maximisation of viewing figures that are an advertising magnet, the magnet that sustains the channels. This was TV so far dumbed down as to be in the kindergarten and it was soaked up like the proverbial sponge to what effect on the minds of the long-term viewer I almost shudder to think. Perhaps there is quality TV somewhere in the schedules and perhaps I had just not looked hard enough.

I wandered idly into the past, to the false dawn (no pun intended) of intelligent telly and a programme called ‘The First Blast’ that was occasionally breathtaking in the way it openly addressed contemporary issues. No room for the likes of that today, just mindless pap and the same old talking heads going from studio to studio to wallpaper their wallets and lull us all into a troubled sleep. ‘Arrested development’ describes local content best, the studied and deliberate effort to keep the viewership fed large helpings of comfort food and nothing that might provoke that most dangerous of activities – a little light thinking. Tootle pip!

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