By Sameera Ehteram
Television is a medium of information and entertainment. Yet there is a prominent leaning curve towards the influence of sponsors and brands. While surfing through channels there is one thing in common that you’ll observe; advertisements – before, after and between, all the shows that air.
Pakistani television is no different. No show, whether entertainment or news based, is without its allotment of commercial messages (read persuasive attacks of visuals and sounds) by beauty products, food and beverage makers, telecommunication, textile, footwear and even pharmaceuticals.
The excessive interruption in the transmission in the form of commercials may irritate most viewers; however, it’s also something held synonymous with television programming. These commercials translate into bread and butter for the channels, hence ‘the more the better’ is understandably the motto. Not to be blamed, except this trend has ruined television programming as we know it.
How the monster was created 2002 onwards, when private electronic media started burgeoning in Pakistan, there started a race for brands to get their products visible and accessible to the masses via modern means of communication.
Channels had their heyday. Brands were betting over each other’s heads to get prime spots for their products’ promotion. Mere seconds of transmissions were being sold for hundreds and thousands of rupees, and prime time slots were way more than that.
Brands and companies bidding for air time gave incentives to channels as well as channel owners and sales and marketing individuals. Hardly half a decade later, things started changing and channels expanded from being a few dozen to scores. The sponsors now had more options to showcase and promote their products. As the tables started turning, newer channels vied for branding, competing head to head with the older ones, despite the latter being more established and stalwart.
Now, instead of the sponsors going after airtime, it is the channels running after brands to pay for their airtime. The wind changed, the tables were turned and the seducer became the seduced.
How brands took over content
Fast forward to 2014 and the channels are seen bending backwards to please those who are aware of this strategy.
Channels are bound, hand and feet, to please sponsors and advertise their brands on the airwaves. The wishes and whims of these sponsors influence the selection, shaping and framing of content. Even news channels now seem to have the additional duty to ensure a favorable political climate for their business concerns.
Modern day private media is commercial media, earning most, if not all of their income from the advertisements they get. The influence of corporate advertisers on media has become apparent over the years. Media outlets shiver at the thought of an unhappy sponsor and do not shy away from shaping their content to attract a suitable audience.
Whereas in the past, shows were planned, created and produced by the television teams consisting of producers, directors and technical staff before marketing and sales departments got involved, most of the prospective shows are now discussed with major advertisers, who review script treatments and even suggest changes to the content.
More and more sponsors are now at liberty to call the shots since they are
A: Footing the bill
B: Can easily go to the competitor if displeased
The victim is content including journalistic objectivity. Yes, even so called ‘journalistic objectivity’ comes in question in the race to make money, newsworthiness often gets determined by stories that will bring more viewers and hence more traffic. Bad news sells: Tune in to a news channel and all one gets to see is death, destruction and plunder.
Imagine surfing through television channels, and coming across a scene showing a field with people working on it, another one showing people enjoying themselves in the snow and a third scene with a building engulfed in flames. Which one will you stick to?
To attract both viewers and advertisers, television news must be credible. Protecting the integrity of the news product has become increasingly challenging, however, as stations seek new revenue sources in a difficult economic climate, good content and a channel’s economic goals can sometimes conflict.
So what we see today in the name of television are:
1. News bulletins riddles with adjectives, and carpeted by sensational music, including trendy Bollywood tracks and graphics to attract viewership. The line between news, journalistic objectivity and entertainment is becoming dimmer every day.
2. Nary a talk show without controversy and sensationalism.
3. Highly sponsored shows throwing brands left, right and centre; over powering and even replacing content and quality.
4. Trends like crime shows, reality challenge shows, morning shows etc. done and beaten to death across all the channels.
5. Does not matter if half the country is fighting natural calamities and sectarian violence; morning shows are bound to shove the likes of wedding weeks, witch hunts, dubious ‘men of God’ performing exorcisms live on air – down the viewers’ throats.
6. In a country that has over 50 channels on air, imagine seeing the same 24 faces on every one of them, every single day of the year. Provided, if X is trending or has given a hit, that person eventually must be in every soap, advertisement and morning show.
7. There is no such thing as subtle advertising. In-your-face-buy-it-now seems to be the call of the day. Special occasions like the Eids, Independence Day, Valentine’s Day etc. have such highly sponsored transmissions that the content and even the channels’ own brands and the occasion feel gets lost in the process.
The examples can go on yet they continue to point in one direction: Advertisements may have given the channels their bread and butter and hence a motivation and ability to progress and succeed; but have eroded content, objectivity and quality entertainment in the process. What we need to see is not assembly line content rather purposeful stuff which has an objective.
Being a strong believer in content being king, Sameera has watched the unfortunate influence of sponsors on programming with dread and apprehension. Yet, always finding fulfillment in writing, she started writing full time in 2012 after 8 years of working as a content producer for a local TV channel, She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org