TELEVISION transmission was introduced in Bhutan in 1999 as part of the government’s plans to modernise the country. Thousands of people subscribed to cable service that provided over 40 channels of round-the-clock entertainment. However, after four years, these same subscribers began to accuse television of smothering their unique culture, of promoting a world that is incompatible with their own. In the years 2002-04, the country suffered a serious crime wave. They had never experienced such a serious law-breaking before. Yet now there were reports from many towns and villages of fraud, violence and even murder. Why was Bhutan falling victim to the kind of crime associated with urban life in America and Europe? For the Bhutanese, the only explanation seemed to be five large satellite dishes on the outskirts of Thimphu. While TV might not be the only factor behind the crime wave, but it certainly brought significant changes in the life of Bhutanese people. These changes have made us to think about the changes it brought in our society. How Bhutan is affected by TV may well help us to find an answer to the question that has evaded us: have we become the product of what we watch?
“Tukka Lagao Musalmanno” became a popular phrase among Pakistani masses after it was repeatedly said by an anchor during a show a couple of years ago. The show was a part of Ramadan transmission which was supposed to be spiritual in nature but in order to compete with other channels and to earn maximum viewership and ratings, it went the other way. Commercialization have resulted in a 360-degree transformation of TV programs. Quiz and game shows have taken a grim and ugly shape. Shows like Neelam Ghar and Kasouti have been replaced by Jeeto Pakistan and Jeet ka Dam. The aforementioned shows had developed a high intellectual level of this nation. But the current shows are leading us to moral degradation and a mentality where a mobile phone or a motorcycle worth more than our ego and self-respect. Almost all the TV channels including the state owned PTV are in the race for TRPs even if it is at the cost of by-passing our moral and cultural values. Our society in general has developed a materialistic state of mind and electronic media is cashing in this situation. Almost every channel has one or more game or reality shows where prizes are given to people after doing some feats or answering some ridiculous questions. People are asked to eat a couple of dozens of samosas in a few seconds, dance on one foot and to fit a half kilo mango in their mouth to win prizes. In quiz shows, Questions related to history, science and current affairs have been replaced by questions like “what’s the first words of a boy when he sees a beautiful girl.” A guy was asked to enlist the names of all his crushes and for every name he won a thousand rupees.
Electronic media in Pakistan have discovered that these so-called game and reality shows are very profitable, resulting in a growing string of such shows in recent years. Although not all are successful, many do achieve significant popularity. That does not mean, however, that they are good for society or that they should be aired. It is also worth mentioning that these TV shows wouldn’t be made if we didn’t watch them, so why do we watch them? Either we find them entertaining or we find them so shocking that we are simply unable to turn away. I’m not sure that the latter is an entirely defensible reason for supporting such programming; turning away is as easy as hitting a button on the remote control. The former, however, is a bit more interesting. TV serials and series have also hit rock bottom for the last two decades. This sector is also the victim of the race for ratings. Concern for the numbers have led to production of poor-quality dramas. The lack of focus on social issues which once were the pride of television plays, is one of the main reasons behind it. The culprit behind it is non-adjustment of new concepts and ideas along with over-commercialisation in TV channels which goes in determining the mood of spectators to decide for their aesthetic appetite. We have not yet seen quality writers like Amjid Islam Amjid, Noor-ul-Huda Shah, Mansha Yad amongst the new generation. Modern day writers need to concentrate more on serious and urgent social topics.
What of the responsibility of these TV shows advertisers? Their funding makes such programming possible, and therefore they must shoulder part of the blame as well. An ethical position would be to refuse to underwrite any programming, no matter how popular, if it is designed to deliberately promote a culture of materialism, stereotyping, cause others humiliation, embarrassment, or suffering. The participants or contestants are also part of the problem. They participate in these shows just to win prizes like mobile phones, a gold necklace or a motorbike. Regardless, the participants volunteer for the producers’ desire to be in humiliating situations. The viewers equally share the blame. If we watch such shows, why? If we find that we are entertained by these shows, then that’s a problem. For better or for worse, television is a big influence on how we think, say, act, interact and how we view ourselves. It shapes and mirrors our lives. Television disseminates information, provides us entertainment and imparts cultural values as well as prevailing ideology. Television tends to easily influence a lot of people. That’s why choosing the right TV shows and regulating people’s viewing habits will help them to acquire good values. We just hope that TV networks should also be responsible in their programming so that they won’t create a negative impact on the viewers, especially the younger ones.
—The writer is freelance columnist.