Why Pakistan's morning shows are problematic

Updated 10 Sep, 2018 05:29pm
A morning show discussion on the holy night of Miraj | Tahir Jamal, White Star
A morning show discussion on the holy night of Miraj | Tahir Jamal, White Star

Twelve aspiring beauticians are present on the set of a morning show.

“Today we will do what no beautician has seen or heard before,” says a make-up expert invited to judge a bridal make-up competition among them. She opens a glittering golden box and takes out a make-up stick. “This is a Negro stick,” she says.

“Negro is habshi. Have you seen habshans?” says another judge, using the local term for men and women of African origin. “People of this colour will come to you too so you have to know what make-up to use in such situations.”

Sanam Jung, the show’s host, holds out her hand and applies the make-up stick on the back of her hand. There is a glaring difference between her light skin tone and the stick’s dark shade. “Make sure the make-up is of this Negro tone, nothing lighter,” she says to the participants of the competition. “You have to create a chocolate bride.”

The participants, who belong to Karachi’s lower middle-class and working-class areas such as Korangi, Malir, North Karachi and Gulberg, are perplexed. They have been taught to brighten the complexion of a bride, never darken it.

The show, aired on March 14, 2018, immediately draws criticism. At least five people lodge complaints against it on the website of the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra) under a code of conduct for electronic media issued in 2015.

But no action is taken against the show.

Another controversial show hosted by Sanam on August 21, 2017 similarly evaded penalty. It featured four celebrities along with their housemaids, or maasis, who were to take part in a cleaning and cooking competition for a prize of 50,000 rupees.

Sanam Jung’s show in March 2018 featuring blackface | Courtesy Facebook
Sanam Jung’s show in March 2018 featuring blackface | Courtesy Facebook

Many viewers were offended by the use of the word maasi which means ‘mother’s sister’ in Punjabi but has come to be used as an alternative for maid, particularly in Karachi. Others were highly critical of how the show presented working-class women as inferior to their bajis or employers.

Sanam does not see anything wrong with the show’s content. “What about the good that we were trying to do?” she says in an interview. “The prize money was a huge amount for a maid because their monthly wages are not even one third of that,” she argues, implying that the money compensated for their disrespectful presentation on-screen. Apparently oblivious to the glaring difference between how the maasis and their bajis were treated on her show, she offers another argument in her defence. “We tried to reinforce the idea that employers should treat their maids better.”

These views may explain why she often airs competitions like these on her show. She, for instance, hosted a Dulhan No 1 competition in which make-up artists competed to doll up brides to win a prize amounting to 250,000 rupees.

Other morning show hosts have tried similar gimmicks. Nida Yasir once hosted a show that offered tips on how short girls could appear taller, and Sahir Lodhi presented a show on March 12, 2018 to teach young girls how to look fairer.

“Do you take a lot of stress? Your face has acne, which is caused by stress,” Sahir told a high school student during the show, ignoring the crestfallen expression that appeared on her face. “Can you see?” he asked one of the guests. “She has a major acne problem.”

Sahir then went on to rub a potato-based paste on the faces of three members of the audience. “Potatoes have a bleaching agent and will make you fair,” he said, and called a skin specialist on stage to offer advice on how to have lighter skin. “If your haemoglobin level is low, your face won’t become fair,” the specialist declared, advising the audience to get their blood tests done.

These pseudoscientific tips are not the only things that Sahir – and many other hosts – peddle on their morning shows. He, indeed, has stretched the limits of what can be shown on a television show.

The result has not always been good for him. In January 2018, a citizen filed a petition with the Sindh High Court seeking to ban his show because it had once shown girls under the age of 12 dancing to Indian item songs. On May 15, 2017, Pemra found his live clip dancing with fashion models as “indecent and objectionable”. The show was fined one million rupees.

Sahir Lodhi applies a face mask to a member of the audience | Courtesy Facebook
Sahir Lodhi applies a face mask to a member of the audience | Courtesy Facebook

A maulvi and a psychiatrist were discussing a supernatural phenomenon on a show hosted by Nida Yasir a few years ago. The question they were addressing was a rather usual one: are djinns real or a figment of one’s imagination? The two were arguing intensely when suddenly some lights exploded on-set and shattered glass fell on Nida and the guests. The panicked on-set audience started screaming. The show had to be called off.

In a similar show aired in March 2012, a young man wearing jeans and a red sports jacket made a startling entry — causing some audience members to leave their seats in distress. Apparently, the man was possessed by a djinn. His face was never shown on camera but he could be seen having a scuffle with a guest wearing a black suit and tie. Moments later, the young man gave in and lay down on the floor, unconscious. The djinn had apparently left him.

On another show, on another channel but in the same year, an old man with a flowing beard was performing an exorcism on a woman wearing a black burqa. He held a muscle in her hand between his thumb and index finger – as if he was torturing the djinn inside her – and forced her to repeat religious verses after him. At the end of the act, the woman started screaming.

These are probably some of the strangest things to have taken place on morning shows. But other shows have also taken unexpected, albeit decidedly less bizarre turns – like guests quarreling with each other. Hosts, too, have to deal with the unforeseen. Nida once slipped on-set while she was heavily pregnant. With 10 seconds left to be back on air, she reappeared on camera, hiding any expression of pain.

“Being a host is not easy,” she says in an interview. “At times the guests say things they are not supposed to say. In that situation, I divert the attention of the viewers by brushing aside what was being said.” Her experience of acting in television dramas may have helped her deal with such situations.

Nida says she is especially careful about hurting her audience’s religious sentiments. “If something wrong slips out of your mouth, someone could get hurt.” And that could be dangerous. “Over here, people are ready to kill over the slightest of misunderstandings.”

Still, Nida has been quite prone to making on-screen blunders.

An elaborate set of Nida Yasir's morning show | Tahir Jamal, White Star
An elaborate set of Nida Yasir's morning show | Tahir Jamal, White Star

In an episode of her show aired in May 2017, she laughs when cricketer Shahid Afridi recounts how in anger he broke a television set because his wife was watching Indian soaps instead of taking care of the children. The segment received large-scale public disapproval for promoting domestic violence. “When a guest comes to your show and says something he finds funny, it is my job to laugh. Remaining serious will look rude,” says Nida when asked about it.

Insiders point out that such gaffes happen because the hosts do not follow any written or verbal guidelines from their producers and directors. Nida sort of confirms this. “We decide the topic of each show as a team but the final decision is mine,” she says. “If I do not find something interesting, I say no to it.”

This type of content control has often resulted in morning shows becoming uniformly inane, even absurd. Nida justifies this frivolity by arguing that the largest chunk of her audience consists of uneducated women sitting at home. “After their children go to school and their husbands head out to office, all they need is entertainment,” she says.

Sanam cannot agree more.

“When I started doing morning shows, I found myself saying no to a lot of topics. For instance, I had an issue with making shows too wedding-centric,” she says on a recent morning. “Then I studied the masses and came to realise that something that does not appeal to my sensibilities could be providing some form of benefit to somebody somewhere.”

She also argues that a lot of morning show viewers do not have the money to go to expensive doctors or beauticians. “By watching the shows, they get good advice from seasoned experts without having to leave the comfort of their homes and without having to pay for it.”

Sanam Jung with the winner of her morning show competition Maasi No 1 | Courtesy Facebook
Sanam Jung with the winner of her morning show competition Maasi No 1 | Courtesy Facebook

It is 3:00 am but women in a house in Karachi’s Landhi area are awake. Shakeela, her daughter Anum, her sister-in-law Shakira and her niece, Areesha, are trying to sort out something important before they can go to bed: what to wear to Nida’s show the next day? They are vigorously debating the merits and demerits of various dresses and finally pick a few formal outfits.

They have waited for weeks and made innumerable calls to the television channel in order to be at the show. They are extremely excited to finally be invited. Shakeela cannot believe that she will be meeting her favourite host in just a few hours.

An hour before sunrise, her husband wakes her up. She offers her prayer, recites the Quran and heads to the kitchen to make eggs, parathas and tea for her large family. She hurriedly lays out the breakfast and requests her husband to make sure everyone in the house eats well. Then she and her daughter rush to catch a bus arranged by the channel to take them to the set — as do Shakira and Areesha and many other women living in their neighbourhood.

The distinct scent of freshly printed panaflex paper hits their nostrils as they enter the show’s set in SITE area. The set is not as big and posh as it appears on television, covering an approximate area of 30 by 30 feet.

Around 40 lights flood the set with florescent brightness. The walls are covered with a three-dimensional print of a traditional Islamic architectural pattern. Fairy lights, white chiffon curtains and vases with white roses also adorn the place.

They find seats amid an all-women audience. A small empty space separates them from the stage where white faux leather couches are placed for the guests and host. The women in the audience have covered their heads with dupattas out of respect for the holy night of Miraj (ascension to heaven) — still around 12 hours away but scheduled to be discussed during the show.

Nida enters wearing a peach chiffon dress that brushes the floor. The audience stares at her in awe, scrutinising her from head to toe as if she were a bride. Holding the edge of her dupatta so it does not fall off her head, she strides towards a cooking station. The eyes of all 40 women in the audience follow her. Some of them are wiping their tears with their dupattas — so overcome are they with emotion.

With hardly a minute left for the show to start, Nida turns and makes eye contact with the audience, smiling and waving at them. “Assalam-o-Alaikum,” she says to one of the elderly women, who responds with gratitude at being acknowledged by a celebrity.

Shakira waiting at Shakeela’s residence | Tahir Jamal, White Star
Shakira waiting at Shakeela’s residence | Tahir Jamal, White Star

The shows takes longer than the audience expected. When the transmission ends, the women get back into the buses that are awaiting a signal from the show’s producers to leave. The wait is making Shakira restless. Her daughter, Areesha, who is with her, has to appear in an examination paper – her final for matriculation – at 2:00 pm and it is already 12:10 pm. Her husband, a police inspector, “does not even know that Areesha has a paper today,” she says.

They need to go home first, but Landhi is 30 kilometres to the east of SITE and requires at least one hour of travel. They could have taken a taxi but her community does not approve of women travelling in taxis without covering themselves in abayas — and her abaya is lying at home.

Shakira and Areesha immediately accept when I offer them a ride in a car. When their destination arrives, they disembark and greet a middle-aged man wearing a red T-shirt and blue jeans. He is Shakeela’s husband. Shakira signals to a house painted in pink and says, “This is Shakeela’s place.” Her own house, painted off-white, is right next door but she does not invite me in because her “father-in-law will get angry if he finds out we went to the show”. She hurries inside to get her daughter dressed for the exam.

Streets in the neigbourhood are narrower than the hallway that leads to the set of Nida’s show. The houses are so small that three of them would fit into the show’s make-up room alone. Standing on the edge of the street, all one can see is dozens of structures of the same size and shape huddled together like shipping containers placed next to each other.

Shakeela’s house is bright and artistically decorated inside. The tiny drawing room is painted bright purple and a beige chador with a red pattern is spread on the floor. A desktop computer is placed next to sofas that are covered in golden silk cloth. An air conditioner is mounted on the wall but does not seem to be working.

Shakeela and her daughter Anum soon arrive with two other members of the show’s audience — a mother and daughter duo from the same neighbourhood. The two women and their daughters sit down on the floor even though there is ample space on the sofas. “Did you see how stunning Nida is in real life?” Shakeela asks.

Anum adores Nida — and also Sahir. She cannot watch their shows when they air because she has to attend college in the mornings, but she watches them online each night.

Women make up the majority of audiences | Tahir Jamal, White Star
Women make up the majority of audiences | Tahir Jamal, White Star

Shakeela is an even bigger morning show enthusiast. She watches shows online along with her husband after having already watched them on television. “I do not know how to use the computer but Anum helps me with that.”

The other mother in the small gathering has been among the on-set audience of many morning shows, including Sanam Jung’s competition for dark-skinned make-up. “It was a great show,” she says. “It is easy to apply make-up on fair people. Real make-up skill is making women with dark skin look good.”

They are not bothered whether or not the shows conform to Pemra’s rules, and will keep watching re-runs if they are banned. “I will repeat-watch all the shows online to keep feeling energised,” Shakeela says, laughing.

A young girl once wanted to have a phone conversation with popular morning show host Shaista Lodhi, but Shaista refused to take her call. Disheartened, the girl tried to commit suicide and had to be taken to a hospital.

A bemused Shaista narrates the incident at a posh beauty clinic in Karachi where she works as a doctor. Sitting in her cosy office at 7:00 pm, she looks a little tired. But, dressed in a lemon-coloured lawn kurta and blue jeans, she still looks as pretty in person as she does on television. Her hair is blow-dried perfectly – straight and voluminous at the top and curled towards the ends – and her rosy skin glows. Her curls bounce with each movement of her head.

Shaista was at the peak of her popularity when a wrong move turned her career upside down — at least temporarily. On May 15, 2014, she hosted a lavish on-screen wedding of actress Veena Malik and Dubai-based businessman Asad Bashir Khattak. The celebrations became controversial when the couple, host and wedding guests danced on stage to the accompaniment of religious poetry sung by renowned qawwal Amjad Sabri.

Many religious scholars declared the act blasphemous. Around 6,000 people filed complaints with Pemra. A police case was also registered under the blasphemy laws against Shaista and Veena, as well as the owner of the television channel that aired the show.

Shaista had to move abroad after she received a flurry of death threats. She returned only in 2016 and had to publicly apologise before she could resume her television career. “There is a lot of pressure on us to watch what we say,” she says in a hushed tone. “I am very cautious now.”

Shaista also knows how the well-read and the well-heeled sections of society do not think much of morning shows and their hosts. Writer and veteran television host Mustansar Hussain Tarar once appeared as a guest on her show and she remembers his reaction when she started discussing something she had read. “So you read too?” he said.

An on-screen wedding on Shaista Lodhi’s morning show | Courtesy Facebook
An on-screen wedding on Shaista Lodhi’s morning show | Courtesy Facebook

“I was so embarrassed,” she says. “We have reduced the value of the content so much that people think we do not know anything.”

This realisation doesn’t deter her from keeping her morning show ultralight. “I have to make things digestible for housewives,” she explains.

It is for a similar reason that Shaista is unapologetic about shows that promote skin lightening: the public demands it. “Most of the patients who come to me at the clinic want to whiten their skin. Mothers bring their daughters who are about to get married for whitening injections,” she claims, pointing out that people from low-income communities who generally watch her shows cannot afford whitening injections and, therefore, rely on whatever advice they can get from morning shows.

However, she admits that, under pressure to attract as many viewers as she can, she often ends up presenting something she knows to be incorrect. “I am not strong enough to go to my employers and say I would not do this.”

What pressures her to do such things is viewership ratings. “I once translated an English poem about mothers and the ratings dropped,” Shaista says.

Morning shows do not earn anything directly from their viewership but instead make money by selling different advertising spots and options to various brands. “For advertising rates to be high, viewership ratings have to be high,” says Rehan Ahmed, the executive producer of Sanam’s show. “The advertising department of a television channel puts pressure on the programming department, which then transfers that pressure to a show’s production team,” he adds. “This is how we end up doing things that we do not like doing. Our hands are tied.”

The irony is that the viewership monitoring system is quite flawed. It is often criticised for being unreliable for a simple reason: there are only a few hundred viewership meters all over Pakistan and those too are run by a single company.

A beauty contest on air | Courtesy Facebook
A beauty contest on air | Courtesy Facebook

Medialogic, the current provider of viewership ratings, relies on 900 meters installed across the country to gain its numbers. Is this number truly representative of a population which exceeds 200 million people? The answer is obviously no.

Medialogic has two main clients: television channels and advertisers. The ratings Medialogic provides are used as currency for all buying and selling between broadcasters and advertisers.

Why do broadcasters and advertisers rely so heavily on Medialogic when other data providers are available, such as the Pakistan Telecommunication Company Limited that can provide viewership ratings based on what is being watched in 50,000 or so households linked to its cable television network? “Medialogic is the only data provider that is supervised and scrutinised by the broadcast industry itself. The industry recognises that we are credible,” says Medialogic’s chief executive, Salman Danish.

Pemra’s head office in Islamabad’s G-8 area is a perfect example of how marble and reflective glass can be used to construct a building that is pleasing to the eye. It is 3:00 pm on a March day and the building’s marble floor shines as if it has just been cleaned. Jinnah’s portrait hangs on a wall above the reception area and money plants are placed in several corners to add greenery to an otherwise grey interior.

Pemra’s media and public relations department is situated on one of the upper floors of the building. There, seated in a cubicle, is Maham Ali Khan. She is the department’s head.

“Pemra will take note only if rules mentioned in its code of conduct are broken,” she says, explaining why next to no action is taken against impropriety and horseplay at morning shows.

The code of conduct is not specific to morning shows. It is applicable to all electronic media in Pakistan, including private television channels, cable operators and private radio stations. It deems offensive certain acts — content that is against Islamic values, is indecent or obscene, incites hatred and contempt against a group or race and challenges the ideology of Pakistan and the ideas of its founding fathers.

A separate set of rules was released in early May 2017 particularly for morning shows. This is how Rehan Ahmed, who works as a producer for Sanam’s morning show, elaborates these rules: “If you are showing the point of view of a mother-in-law then you have to bring the point of view of the daughter-in-law as well. If we are showing a woman who is complaining about her husband, we have to get the husband’s version as well.” Morning shows, he says, cannot broadcast anything that may promote chaos, confusion and psychological problems in society. Black magic, exorcism and discussions about djinns are completely banned.

Some shows and hosts have already been penalised since the promulgation of the newer rules. In June 2017, for instance, Pemra fined Sahir for “disrespecting Quaid-e-Azam” on his morning show.

Others have faced action by other branches of the government. Sanam was recently told to retract her remarks about a young girl’s abduction. “I got a call from the Rangers. They said the incident was an old one but was discussed in the show as though it reflected the current security scenario in Karachi,” says Ahmed, her show’s producer. “I apologised on Sanam’s behalf for not verifying the information before speaking about it. [Even then] the Rangers required Sanam to issue a clarification on the show so we did that two days later.”

This must have been a special case.

Morning show host Anoushey Ashraf | Mohammad Ali, White Star
Morning show host Anoushey Ashraf | Mohammad Ali, White Star

Authorities usually do not move against morning shows on their own. As far as Pemra is concerned, it relies on television viewers to see if its own code of conduct and rules are being followed. “We take action after we get public complaints,” says Maham, “[because] we do not have a mechanism to monitor morning shows.”

Pemra, in fact, does not possess the technology to oversee everything that goes on air, she says. “We have a monitoring department that looks at 90 television channels 24/7, but all these are news channels.”

If and when an action is taken, which is rare, it does not always get automatically implemented. According to Maham, more than 500 cases are pending against various television channels but the proceedings have been stopped by various courts. “We cannot fine a channel more than one million rupees but most of them do not pay even this small amount and get a stay order from a court instead.”

Huma Amir Shah trained as a broadcast journalist and has been appearing on television for over a decade. She is also credited with hosting one of the first English language morning shows in Pakistan. These days she co-hosts a morning show on a popular news channel.

The set for her show is modestly constructed in a building on Karachi’s I I Chundrigar Road and is not open to a live audience. The show does not even accept live phone calls.

One morning last winter, Huma is wearing an A-line tunic with straight pants, a sharp contrast to the wedding garb donned by other morning show hosts. Also, she steers clear of discussing beauty tips or wedding dresses and instead chooses a blend of topics covering politics, economy, health and nutrition. “I try to offer content which I feel is something that a viewer should be informed about for the rest of the day,” says Huma. “Just entertainment news or learning how to cook would not get you anywhere.”

She does invite celebrities occasionally — not to regale the audience with their presence but to promote their work. Unlike with other shows, celebrities on her show do not get paid for their time. “Our guests come to our show willingly, knowing that there is no money on the table,” she says.

Also, unlike other hosts, Huma is certain that viewership ratings do not guide her content, and the senior producer of her show, Irfan Ishaque, confirms this. He reiterates that his production team does what it wants to do, paying no attention to ratings. “Our media has made the scope of morning shows very limited. They only discuss weddings and make-up and cooking. So we decided to introduce a morning show that includes things such as politics, environment, women’s empowerment, breast cancer awareness, digital safety, Internet freedom and celebrity and entertainment news,” he says. “Eventually, we got the ratings too.”

Ishaque also refutes the common assumption that only women watch morning shows. “We have studied the trends and found that men are watching our show as well.”

As one enters the set of a morning show near Karachi’s West Wharf area, the aroma of breakfast being cooked takes over. A guest chef is teaching the audience how to prepare a cheese omelette with spinach while the host, Anoushey Ashraf, talks about different dishes that can be served at breakfast time.

“We do not focus on rating, we do not have a live audience and we do not conduct marriages,” says Kiran Yazdani, the executive producer of the show. “The idea behind this show is to create a setting where characters are placed in a certain situation and a make-believe story is created. Anoushey plays the role of a progressive working woman who shares a house with a friend and a maid,” Kiran explains. “The guests who come in act like they are a part of the story line.”

In the second season of the show, Anoushey and her friend have bought a café. “So, we have revamped the décor of the set accordingly,” says Kiran, who has worked as a creative director at an advertising firm.

She believes it is important to give something different to the viewers from what they watch on other morning shows. “My question is: why are we showing the audience the same kind of content?” The show she produces often takes up social problems faced by housewives in particular and women in general. It also discusses many culturally taboo topics as well as subjects trending on popular Facebook groups.

Kiran and her team make sure that everyone on the show sticks to its core values. “We got an advertising offer that required Anoushey to apply a whitening cream during the show but I refused,” she says, shaking her head in disgust. “I do not promote this gora-kala culture.”

Kiran also does not agree that only fashion and beauty appeal to the masses. That her show has managed to attain the fourth highest rating only proves her contention.

Mustansar Hussain Tarar | Ayesha Vellani, White Star
Mustansar Hussain Tarar | Ayesha Vellani, White Star

Wearing a dark purple kurta, Mustansar Hussain Tarar is standing at the entrance of his residence in Lahore. His eyes are warm and friendly. He opens his arms in a welcoming gesture and says a soft hello.

Tarar is known as chacha jee by those who grew up hearing his greeting “Asalam-o-Alaikum Pakistan” every morning on a show called Subah Bakhair. The show started in February 1988 and included an exercise segment, discussion of current affairs, a weather report, religious subjects, cartoons and lifestyle related topics.

“The trend of watching television in the morning did not exist in the 1980s,” says Tarar. Back then, Pakistan had only one state-owned television channel, PTV, which ran between 4:00 pm and midnight, with occasional live broadcasts of mainly hockey and cricket matches. “We still decided to launch a show in the 7:00 am to 9:00 am slot, taking inspiration from morning shows in other countries. The aim was to keep the content short and light so that people could watch it while waking and dressing for school or office.”

The show was a success. PTV received so much mail about it that a room in its headquarters in Islamabad would be flooded with fan letters.

“I suppose people liked my causal style of compering,” Tarar says. “People would think I was talking to them. Sometimes I would randomly say, ‘Beta, wipe the milk off your mouth.’ If one million kids were watching me, I knew at least a few thousand would have a milk moustache,” he says, laughing. “My friendly attitude was considered unique as our hosts had a wooden attitude and did not believe in being casual,” he explains, an unmistakable hint of nostalgia flitting through his eyes. “Once I sneezed on air. I casually turned to the camera and said, ‘I am not a robot. It’s okay if I get sick.’”

He remembers that almost no attention was paid to the set of his show. The compere was the focus, not the props. “If you are taking a helping hand then you are not a compere, you are an announcer,” he says, referring to the 21st century morning shows that are often flooded with guests, co-hosts, and fancy, brightly-lit sets. “I also made it a point never to lie to the audience,” Tarar says. “After Zia’s plane crash, I was asked to act devastated, but Zia had banned many of my books and I felt differently towards him. So I refused and instead went on air and just read the news like a newscaster.”

Tarar says he does not watch the morning shows of today. “Why would I watch shows of foolish people?” he says, bluntly. Once Nadia Khan, a popular television host in the late 2000s, invited him to her show and introduced him as the father of morning shows. “I said, one or two of these kids may be mine but not all of them. I cannot produce such stupid children.”

Quratulain Ali was hosting a live morning show when a news anchor sitting beside her lost balance due to a faulty chair. The host did not make any attempt to cover up the incident. Instead, she commented on it on camera, saying, “We never know when one loses one’s chair!” The same evening, Benazir Bhutto was removed as prime minister. The Urdu daily Nawa-e-Waqt printed a big story the next morning. Its headline said kursi khisak gayee (the chair slipped away) and mentioned that Quratulain Ali had forecast the prime minister’s downfall on her show. Such was the appeal of morning shows back in the day!

Quratulain was Tarar’s co-host on PTV’s first morning show. Often referred to as phuppo jee – a title she is not fond of – she was one of the first Pakistani women to appear on a live television transmission. Before becoming a host, she worked as a teacher and English-language newsreader for Radio Pakistan.

She would walk on to the set of her show wearing her own clothes instead of a designer-sponsored wardrobe. General Ziaul Haq would often watch the morning transmission and send his comments to PTV on the attire worn by the host, she says. “One day I got so sick of the interference that I said, please ask him to do the show himself.”

Quratulain explains how, in the past, the content of each morning show would be different, requiring the host to thoroughly prepare for it. She would study all night to research the topics she needed to discuss the next morning. “The hosts of today speak without any information or preparation. They just decorate the set and put in some glamour, music and a lot of noise,” she says.

Another problem, according to her, is that the hosts of today are loud and uncivilised. They are not trained to listen and often interrupt their guests, she says. “They lack culture, knowledge, information and a sense of media ethics … to anchor the show forward,” she remarks in an interview at her residence in Islamabad. “The hosts of today look so nice but everything is ruined the minute they start talking.”

Sitting on a couch with her shoulders straight and her head held high, Quratulain is an astounding combination of grace and confidence. When she speaks, her words come out clear and crisp with an emphasis on each letter. She is worried that no attention is paid to the way language is spoken on morning shows. “Yes, the requirement of the audience has changed but that does not mean you cannot focus on pronunciation.”

The media had hardly any freedom in the late 1980s due to Zia’s dictatorial stranglehold over the state and society, but the hosts of that time still managed to have an on-screen presence, says Quratulain. The hosts today have so much freedom, she says, but it is disappointing that they do not use their influence productively and instead focus more on commericalisation.

Talat Hussain | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star
Talat Hussain | Tanveer Shahzad, White Star

Talat Hussain was once the host of a morning transmission segment titled Sawairay Sawairay on a show called Roshan Pakistan that aired on PTV in the late 1990s. He now hosts an evening talk show on Geo News.

He is seated behind a big desk in his office in Islamabad’s Blue Area on a recent March day, wearing a dark green T-shirt that stands out in his predominantly blue office. “Current affairs on a live show were a no-no at that time because anything could go wrong. Also, a journalist working at a government-controlled television channel was considered to be a lowly act. Nor was there any money in it,” says Hussain, as he explains why his decision to be a part of the show was not easy. And then he had an additional worry: the producer of the show was deliberately set up for failure.

The show, however, turned out to be a success. “Our task was to fill the airtime with semi-soft content,” says Hussain. The guidelines included advice to steer clear of political controversies, avoid demoralising people, highlight talent and showcase stories of resilience and success. “The content we presented was productive but it was not jazzy. The fact is real people are not jazzy.”

In one of the video clips of Sawairay Sawairay available on YouTube, Talat is sitting on a minimalistic set. The camera is zoomed in to focus solely on the anchor and a guest. Visually, it offers little, yet the conversation grabs one’s attention. “We did not have any props. The only drama in the show was the conversation,” he says, leaning back in his chair.

Tauseeq Haider is another morning show host from the past. Videos of his show, aired from 2004-2009, are hard to find online except for a few clips on YouTube. In one, he is interviewing Ali Moeen Nawazish who scored 21 As in his A-level exams, achieving a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. Seated on a simple set comprising a kitchen table, chairs and two flower vases, Haider exudes a warm, welcoming aura. The chemistry between the host and guest is friendly and respectful. There is no soundtrack or commotion in the background; the speaker is the focus of attention. The interview itself is inspiring and thought-provoking. “Is the race to achieve high grades more important than seeking knowledge?” Haider asks.

He believes an emphasis on the youth and children is missing from contemporary shows. “When I was young, there were programmes that included advice on career and education,” he says over the phone. “Television was the third parent and it really had a positive effect on our mindset.”

However, he points out a crucial difference between the older shows and the new ones. “It is very important to differentiate between morning shows and breakfast shows,” he says. “The shows we were a part of were breakfast shows, aired at the 7:00-9:00 am slot that targeted a general audience. The 9:00-11:00 am shows we see nowadays are morning shows with women as their target audience.”

Zafarullah Khan, the host of News Morning, a show aired on PTV between 2000 and 2002, offers another explanation for the difference between the past and the present. “In our times, PTV had a monopoly and it offered whatever it wanted. Nowadays, there is a buffet of choice and there is appetite for everything being aired.”

Nor does he discount the importance of providing entertainment to television audiences. “You cannot ignore entertainment. Even print has tabloids,” he says in an interview at the Islamabad office of the Pakistan Institute of Parliamentary Services, a state-owned think tank where he works as a director.

Seated in a spacious office behind a wooden desk flooded with files, Zafarullah, however, says there is one aspect of morning shows that bothers him the most: dramatising content to such an extent that it feels like an artificially concocted reality. “Where is the segment of society we see on television?”

The writer is a staffer at the Herald

This article was originally published in the June 2018 issue of the Herald. To read more, subscribe to the Herald in print.

Additional reporting by Manal Faheem Khan