“This is PTV” Book review (Daily Times)

The good, the bad, and the ugly of television

By Babar Ayaz

Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to say that private television channels’ revolution has taken the country over. Pakistan is changing fast, led by the electronic waves and will never be what it was at the turn of the 21st Century.

Like all revolutions, this revolution has also the good, the bad and the ugly features. But as the private television channels’ owners and employees mature, the bad and ugly features, one hopes, will fade to a certain extent. We have to be charitable, patient and acknowledge that the private TV channels have not yet entered their adolescence.  

Young private channels have a lot to learn and desist from the arrogance that they are doing a great job. The publication of ‘This is Ptv’ written by its former Managing Director can give hundreds of private TV staffers a peep into the history of the first TV channel of the country and some lessons.

It is the first attempt to record the history of Ptv, which has contributed a lot to the society. But I must hasten to add that many a times Ptv failed the expectations of its viewers. Ptv is a mixed bag of good and not-so-good. And the good thing is that Agha Nasir has candidly recorded its failures which in the final analysis point the finger to its owners – I mean the successive governments. I will come to this a bit later.

Ptv was the pioneer television, not only in Pakistan, but also in South Asia, as India moved from their Delhi pilot project to spread its footprints only after 1971. Started by a young starry-eyed team, which had no previous experience of television, it made tremendous contribution particularly in the field of drama, music, and quiz programmes to spread general knowledge. It produced wonderful documentaries and created a vast pool of technical staff which helped in the setting up of a majority of TV channels once the private sector was allowed in this business. The book records briefly the achievements of Ptv in all these areas and adequately pays tribute to all the pioneers.  

Agha Nasir has documented that the word television according to the book was first used by Prime Minister Bogra ‘he mentioned about the magic of the television at private gatherings’. He was exposed to this magic because his last posting was as Pakistan’s Ambassador to the USA in the early 50s.

But the idea was adopted in 1958 by Ayub Khan’s regime. According to ‘This is Ptv’ the basic objectives for the television were laid down in the Education Reform Commission. These objectives were: “television could help social science students get first hand information about the geographic, economic and social conditions; it could contribute directly to development programmes in industrial and agriculture sectors.”

However, once PTV was established the government realised that it could be used as a propaganda tool. That’s where it earned a bad perception. Agha Nasir has taken stock of this in his chapter “Who calls the shots’. He has recorded how each ruler from General Ayub Khan to General Pervez Musharraf called the shots through their information secretaries and other minions in the bureaucracy. The negative perception about PTV is mostly on account of its news and current affairs programmes. Agha Nasir has also expressed similar views while discussing this segment. He has not shied away to say that ‘Khabarnama’ was thus nicknamed as ‘Wazirnama.’

Now at least on two occasions I am witness to the fact; when there was a discussion on improving Khabarnama, held by information minister Mushahid Husain and Javed Jabbar my view in these meetings was that as long as Ptv is forced to give daily coverage to the president, prime minister and chief ministers’ activities in the Khabarnama and for rest of the time there is a scramble between PROs of various ministers, no improvement can come to Ptv news.  . Ptv management was so bureaucratic that even good employees in the current affairs section were afraid of sticking their necks out, as people were suspended, if not chucked out, because something against the government went on air. However I would admit that talk shows and news have slightly improved only because of tough competition from the private sector channels. Here I am reminded of an ironic incident. Murtaza Bhutto’s assassination in Karachi was reported by Ptv in their 12 midnight bulletin as the last news before the sports. The newscaster said, according to BBC he was killed in a shootout with the police in Karachi. Media historian and critic Zamir Niazi rang me up on the following day and said “what kind of journalism is that chalo chullo bhar pani mey doob marain.” (Let’s go and commit suicide in a cup of water).

My view is that in any society many a times right things happen for wrong reasons. Much credit is given to Musharraf for opening up the electronic media to the private sector. But three important factors are often not mentioned: One, that by the time Musharraf came Benazir Bhutto had already allowed the first private entertainment channel STN, which sold its time to NTM; two, the satellite TV technology had broken all censorship barriers and people who could afford were already accessing the international channels, including the Indian channels; and three, Musharraf allowed the first private channel ‘Indus’, because he felt that Ptv lost against the Indian propaganda to give coverage to his stupid Kargil adventure. Interestingly according to David Page and William Crawley’s book ‘Satellite over South Asia’, Indra Gandhi allowed expansion of Doordarshan in 1972 because she was aware of Ptv’s reach across the Wagah and in India Kashmir during the 1971 war. This was 13 years after experimental TV was established in Delhi in 1959.

On the positive side it can be recorded that state supported Ptv has been able to do many such programmes which are necessary and are not dictated by the commercialization of media where brand managers and marketing department dictate. That is what a public service television is supposed to do and that is why they are supported through subsidies like TV license fee etc. by many countries including U.K. where BBC is a fine example. But when governments start using the channels for their propaganda and do not allow editorial freedom, they lose their credibility and even truth is perceived as a lie.

The importance of Ptv as a public service channel cannot be undermined particularly when this post-modernism medium in the private sectors is contributing to what leading, social scientist John Fiske calls fragmentation of experience and its images. He has underlined that “Fragmentation overpowers any attempt to provide coherence within the sequence.” It is indeed a subject that needs research on influence of mass media explosion on our society.

While Agha Sahab has narrated many instances where the rulers dictated the policies which damaged ultimately the independence of editorial, in some places because of his long association with the institution he is quite charitable. But for the journalists and students of mass media communications it is an important book, because it records the first hand history written by an insider. (ayazbabar@gmail.com)

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