Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Television then and now

As I See it Column
The Independent
15 October, 2011
M Serajul Islam

I still remember the first programme on TV in what was then East Pakistan. The attraction that the small screen held for us in those days was something that has little comparison with what pleasure the TV gives us today, its humungous expansion in terms of numbers and technology notwithstanding.

Abdullah Abu Sayeed took viewers like me on a trip down the memory land the other day on what TV was to us growing up and now. Abdullah Abu Sayeed who needs no introduction to readers of this column for his contribution to our society as President of Bangladesh Biswa Sahityya Kendra and winner of Magsaysay Award, eloquently and in a nonchalant way described the transformation of the small screen over the decades in a TV interview on a private TV channel recently..

He said that thanks to the floodgate of private TV channels, we have banished from the TV programmes those aspects of our culture and heritage that are our strongest points. As instances, he said private TV channels almost entirely avoid programmes of classical music; on traditional music and songs of Bangladesh, etc. His sarcastic remark that Rabindra Sangeet has not yet been banished perhaps because of fear of the great man underscored the point poignantly that the private TV channels run on profit motive primarily dishing for viewers cheap programmers that needs no talent or brains to produce.

In my trip down the memory lane, I remembered a programme in which Mostafa Monwar spoke to the viewers back in the late 1960s. Those were the days when most programmes were live and the technological support was primitive. He showed the utter lack of space and equipment in the DIT Bhavan from where the TV station functioned. Yet, that station gave the viewers quality programmes in plenty that the explosion of TV stations together today cannot match.

Take for instance programmes such as “Apner Doctor” hosted by Dr. Badrudozza Chowdhury, later on to become a top politician of the country and eventually our President. That was one programme that we watched with rapt attention both for quality of production and for the brilliance of Dr. Badrudozza.

My eldest sister used to live in Islamabad in the 1960s. Those days, the regional TV stations used to air recorded programmes from one another. The Islamabad station used to show Dhaka TVs programme as the last programme of the evening, close to midnight, deliberately. One evening, as my sister waited for the programme of Dhaka TV, she was disappointed that it was a book review and that too on a book of science. Nevertheless she sat through but instead of being bored she was enthralled as the reviewer was Munir Chowdhury. My sister said that he kept the audience glued to the TV by his sheer brilliance.

There were many like Dr. Badrudozza and Munir Chowdhury who did programmes those days that were equivalent of our present day talk shows about which Abdullah Abu Sayeed had interesting comments in the programme aired on Channel 1. He called the present day talk shows as shouting contests. Those days, there were quality dramas, enough of classical music; songs and music with deep roots in our culture; dance programmes; etc. In Salimullah Muslim Hall in the late 1960s, we used to eat our dinner early to get a place in the TV room for the weekly drama. After each, we used to spend time discussing the drama and always impressed with most of what we viewed

These days, we have some artistes in drama who are comparable and perhaps better than those in the past. However, the mix of these few good artistes with a majority, in fact overwhelming majority, of below average is such that the talent of the few good ones are lost in the mix. Then again the demand of the few good ones is so much that they end up wasting their talent by spreading themselves too thin! The lack of talent in dramas is further worsened by the absence of script writers.

The poor quality of the TV programmes sunk on me as I flipped and flipped to watch a TV programme that I could enjoy during the last Eid holidays. I could not find one to hold my attention. With all fairness, I must admit that I could not concentrate on any programme long enough to make a fair assessment. Nevertheless, no one among friends or family told me that he or she had watched a programme worth mentioning.

There is a distinct downward trend in the quality of programmes then and now. This trend downward is an unacceptable one because the viewers have grown many times as has number of TV stations and most importantly, technology. In the programme in which Abdullah Abu Sayeed spoke, the interviewer interjected to mention that the TV stations say in their defense for poor quality of the programmes that they simply cater to public demand. Abdulla Abu Sayeed rejected this view. He said that it is because of the standard and taste of our viewers that our TV stations do not dare show obscenity on the small screens that we see in neighbouring countries and elsewhere.

The expertise to run private TV stations and talent for quality programmes have not matched the sudden and dramatic explosion in number of private TV channels. That explains the poor quality of programmes. The other factor for the poor quality is the greed of these stations for money. It would be better to call our TV stations advertising firms with interjection of programmes so that the viewers stay tuned. Abdullah Abu Sayeed thus pleaded that the TV stations would try and make one quality programme of an hour duration a day or a week. According to him and I agree entirely, even that is not happening.

Yet new stations are coming like mushrooms. From a business point of view, it does not make sense for there is already an over-saturation of private TV channels. Together with allowing new TV stations, the government is coming with new national broadcast policy to regulate programmes in these stations. Something is surely amiss here. One has to wonder which programmes the Government is considering regulating. The Prime Minister’s recent caustic remarks about TV talk shows suggest that the government is not happy about the often unfettered criticisms about its activities. These talk shows and news programmes could be the main reason for the need of new guidelines for the private TV channels.

The government seems poised to subject these TV stations to politics. Already, strong views have emerged against the guidelines, a draft of which has already come to the hands of the media. Thus instead of encouraging the private TV stations to change for the better by quality programmes with focus on our culture, our history and our ethos and less on money making greed, the government seems inclined to turn the private TV channels into what Bangladesh TV has become over the years, a mouthpiece for government propaganda.

The mindset here is unbelievable. When we were watching TV under the Pakistani regime, the programmes were largely above politics and quality productions with emphasis on our culture and our society. Come independence, we transformed that medium into a vehicle for government propaganda. Now we are about to see government guidelines to bring the private TV channels into the same frame!

The writer is a former Ambassador to Japan and Egypt

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