june issue 2011
It’s Time for a Television Content Rating System in Pakistan
A girl, perhaps in her mid teens, lustfully dreams about a man in his early 30s. A middle-aged man flaunts his polygamous relationships. Teenagers enjoy smokes and booze at a rave. If all of these seem like scenes from a British or American soap, then you are definitely mistaken.
All of this is displayed on Pakistani TV channels, as part of the dramas and soaps that are supposed to be “family entertainment.” Of course, the truth is that some of these dramas are quite explicit and are not fit for many young viewers.
No one is suggesting censorship or forced Islamisation of the idiot box. But it seems that with the recent media revolution, all channels here are in dire need of some serious self-scrutiny. This scribe tries to stay away from television altogether, but very occasionally catches a glimpse or two of our creativity. Recently, I’ve been exposed to handful of shows across different channels. Make no mistake, something is out of place on our desi tube.
Alcohol seems to be the most hip fad. Almost all TV dramas show someone knocking back the drinks. In the past, the characters who drank or were portrayed as alcoholics were the villains. Not anymore. Moreover, the teenagers and adults puffing on cigarettes represent “high society,” despite the fact much of the world understands that that smoking is a major killer and is trying to curb it.
Nowadays it is socially acceptable to demonstrate what society at large is indulging in. And there are those that would argue that these scenes are necessary to reveal the ills of society. It’s all well and good, so long as the audience is mature enough to handle such scenes. But how does someone identify a show filled with “mature content” before it flashes before their eyes?
This is where a television content rating system that forewarns all viewers, especially parents, would be appropriate. Without proper supervision and explanation, many young minds would simply accept all the images they see as part of life.
The lack of a ratings system becomes more problematic when the issues go beyond cigarettes (something everyone is commonly exposed to). Sexually suggestive scenes and dialogue are cleverly placed in many dramas as well. Polygamy is often depicted as perfectly normal and perhaps the birth right of the male. In our TV dramas, men and their extramarital affairs are so common that it boggles the mind. Throw in a few prostitutes and pimps to show the moral abyss we are collectively in and you have the recipe for today’s perfectly normal family soap.
One can make a passionate argument in favour of all of this. The teleplays are, after all, just a mirror of our society. Television is simply providing a glimpse of our moral decay. Again, no argument whatsoever about the degradation, but the point here is the need for viewer discretion.
Of course there is the media police, PEMRA. Often, it enforces its strong arm for all the wrong reasons. But here’s an opportunity for it to do some good. There needs to be a more effective code of conduct within the electronic media industry by which channels take ownership of informing and cautioning viewers about the content they broadcast. If a programme has content that is considered “family unfriendly” (i.e. sexual and obscene language, violence, degrading situations, verbal aggression, etc.) then the channel should at least give a fair warning to all viewers by following a rating scale and displaying clear, pre-show warning messages.
The first step towards developing a content rating system for Pakistan requires a survey. A participatory approach needs to be followed where viewer feedback is solicited. Based on this, parental guidelines should be developed. The result, like in North America and dozens of countries around the world, will force channels to flash an easily recognisable rating in the corner of the screen, thus arming parents with the information they need to decide whether they need to quickly move their fingers on the remote or not.