Moneeza Hashmi answers the eternal question why there are hundreds of channels to watch but nothing worth watching on TV?
By Fareeha Qayoom
ahore, November 22, 2005 – It’s strange but true that television changed people’s lives forever since its advent. It has great and far reaching influence, sometimes, totally unconscious. Millions of people spend hours in front of it, glued to the screen switching channels. Once upon a time, the lounge was a great place to have conversations and tea, now, the pride of place is taken up by giant television screens and monster entertainment units in thousands of family rooms across Pakistan. You could call it the invention that killed conversations stone dead, ruining family time and changing lifestyles forever, making couch potatoes of thousands of young kids and adults alike. Kids have it easy nowadays. In our day, we had only PTV and that only from 4:00 till 9:00. We had to sneak in past our curfew (bed-time) to watch any reasonable entertainment – old Hollywood movies, documentaries and an odd Wahid Murad flick. Has the quality of entertainment improved with the advent of cable? Not necessarily. There may be hundred of choices available but it’s still hard to find intelligent entertainment or unbiased news coverage.
About six years ago, sick and tired of watching BBC, CNN, and Fox News’ Islam bashing policy in general and PTV’s silence in particular, I decided to do something about it myself and set up time to meet Ms. Hashmi, then, the GM of PTV Lahore Center. She came across as a very professional, dedicated and high powered lady but rendered totally in effective by PTV policies. She couldn’t do much for me or the quality of news coverage coming out of Pakistan because for one, the news was handled by Islamabad and two, she couldn’t take on apprentices because there was a freeze on hiring at that point. We went our separate ways but my curiosity remained. I have been watching PTV all my life. I think it’s the most influential and powerful TV channel in Pakistan. For some weird reason, despite the resources, it refuses to do better than a mediocre job. I was dying to find out why? So hunting down my little black book, I decided to give Hashmi a call. Imagine my surprise when I found out she had left PTV to join HUM TV.
Getting time from her was a piece of cake comparatively, making the appointment on time with the Lahore traffic what it is today and finding parking space was like climbing a mountain in a full scale blizzard. Hashmi is a stickler for punctuality in case you haven’t gotten the point yet. I got there with five minutes to spare but I didn’t realize there were four flights of stairs that I was expected to cross before getting to her floor. They may call it the second floor but it’s actually the fifth floor. Huffing and puffing, I quickly gave her a call on her cell phone exactly on the dot to let her know I had arrived. She had only given me half an hour for our talk. I didn’t have a single minute to waste in useless trivia. (Her office is very nice by the way!)
First things first, I wanted to know why she had left PTV? Politics, she replied. “I was due for retirement back in 1996, but they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse so I stayed on. There was a restructuring in 2005 the new managing director at the helm of PTV (not a media person) transferred me to Islamabad. I felt completely sidelined, it was an absolute nightmare, even though I was director programs and it was not an impossible but doable task well within the scope of my capabilities, still I went on a long leave of absence and moved back to Lahore. At the end of the leave, I decided to leave PTV anyway. Everybody who counts (at PTV) has been made to leave or left voluntarily. It’s sad. PTV is there to serve the people, it’s not in the business of making money – it’s going downhill fast because of rampant politics. Lucky for us, the government has opened up the media and PTV’s competition is snapping up all the real talent. I also found work immediately, ironically, for their leading competitor, HUM TV providing them insight as a senior PTV person!” she declares with a smile.
Moneeza Hashmi needs no introduction. She’s a household name wherever there is a television set and literate set of viewers. Her name has been synonymous for many quality television productions. Her special area of interest continues to be children, women and educational issues. But for those of you who don’t have a clue about her background, here’s a brief bio. She did her Bachelors from Kinnaird (figures!) back in 1967, Masters in 1978 from Punjab University and another Masters in 1981 from University of Hawaii, USA. She served as a program manager for PTV Lahore, from 1974 to 1981, Manager Educational Television, from 1982 to 1988 and General Manager (GM), from 1988 to 2003, with the singular honor of being the first female GM with the longest tenure at PTV with complete administrative, financial and executive control over affairs of 800 employees of PTV Lahore. She was also the National Project Director, PTV/UNDP from 1999-2000, responsible for Portrayal of Women in Media. Last but not the least, she was the Director programs, PTV Islamabad from 2003 to 2004, again being the first and only female executive promoted to this rank, responsible for managing and scheduling program software of five PTV channels operative on 24-hour cycle. She’s also been a recipient of numerous awards including Graduate award for best producer, which she got for producing programs for women in 2001 and 2002, Pakistan, Excellence Award 2001-2 presented by Media women Print Journalists organization Pakistan, PTV 10th national award, for best producer, again for producing programs for women, Commonwealth Broadcasting Association award and Citation of Excellence 2002, UK, President’s pride of performance award 2002, for contribution in portrayal of Women on electronic media, Pakistan and Fatima Jinnah Award for Professional Excellence 2004 by Governor Punjab, Pakistan.
Hashmi feels lack of training is hampering quality programming in the media industry. “Generally it’s tough to be in the media right now because the choices are unbelievable. Running an all purpose entertainment channel is still better because it gives you an edge. You can’t run a 24/7 children’s channel here for example. The only company that can do so is PTV, the rest are hampered by limited resources. The easiest software to acquire is the ‘religion’ or ‘music’ ones, so that’s why you see a degree of specialization in this area by the private sector. Electronic media is becoming an industry now but all the real stuff is happening in Karachi, it’s a different world out there. Lahore is picking up too. The only problem I see is lack of trained professionals. Unfortunately, there are no schools that can teach you the basics. You don’t see the likes of Anwar Maqsood and Shoaib Hashmi in the current crop of new talent. They are veterans. I find it very interesting to see the whole thing grow in spite of all these limitations. Most of the youngsters today are learning on the job, seeming to be dazzled and inspired by Indian channels, they are producing very slick, commercial programs. Our industry seems to be suffering from lack of direction which doesn’t make for good programs. I think only the good will survive in the end when all is said and done. The viewer is no fool. Unfortunately, no private channel has been allowed access via satellite so PTV is still the reigning queen of Pakistan.”
Hashmi thinks in spite of PTV’s monopoly of Pakistani airwaves, private channels are in the lead in the urban centers of Pakistan. “GEO is number one, closely followed by HUM TV at number two. PTV comes somewhere at the bottom, ranking number five. These figures are based on a recent Gallup poll. Unfortunately, there is no system here to gauge the real ratings in Pakistan.”
Hashmi likes to see good entertainment. “I don’t have time to watch Television, though when I tune in, I like to see good entertainment, movie or documentary. HUM TV is providing good entertainment, though the focus of programming is professional women oriented issues. Women have become more educated, more aware so it’s important to provide gender balanced programs. (Hum TV has an office in Lahore since December but we do not record or broadcast programs from here. It’s very expensive, so I travel between Karachi and Lahore.) HUM TV is committed to covering women in a meaningful way. I personally believe everything has to have a purpose. Media is the best source for driving home public service messages. Radio is doing good work in this area as well, they broad cast a lot of such messages, people listen, and it doesn’t require literacy.”
“I don’t know why we continue to get inspired by Indian soaps,” she continues, totally exasperated. “They can make better soaps than us any day. That’s our weak area. They have a thriving film (and fashion) industry behind them. They can afford to bring in the necessary glitter and glamour by introducing over the top make up and costumes, though it requires a lot of taste to produce an upscale production. Pakistan can’t do “Kon banega Crorepati?” (Translation: “Who wants to be millionaire?”) on the other hand. First of all, we don’t have an equivalent of Amitab Bachan here. What we need to do is focus on our strengths. What can we do better than them? We continue to produce excellent drama and sit-coms. Our pop, folk music is better. We can’t make a better “TITANIC” so what’s the point of copying such ideas? There is no consistency between ideas. India is considered the largest Democracy. We are constantly swinging between extremes. There is no political will for art to develop here. Music and culture is part of their religion. We on the other hand do not have a healthy attitude towards performance arts. There is a constant battle going on here. The easiest thing to do here is brand anything innovative as un-Islamic, so nobody dares to do anything new. We are all taking the easy way out. There is no accountability. But there are pockets of excellence. Competition is fierce with the cable and satellite channels creeping in the smaller and remote areas of Pakistan, turning it into battle for survival. We all thought there was not enough room for so many TV Channels but amazingly the pie has started growing, channels are developing their own segmentation, carving out their particular niche so there will be sustainability provided you do better quality of work.”
So what about the constant battle for advertising space and viewers short attention span? “It’s called clustering. Yes, commercials have taken over the programs. Viewers may not get as much pleasure from constant and long commercial breaks between their favorite programs but TV Channels need advertising to generate revenues. PTV used to get a subsidy but Benazir Bhutto removed it. PTV gets PKR 60 million through the electricity bill now. You would think with the removal of financial worries, the quality of work might improve at PTV but media is beyond common sense. It requires a lot of professional expertise (which PTV lacks currently due to high turnover). I have faith that things will improve. Faith comes from within. Lucky for me, the organization I now work for has dedicated senior management who believes in producing quality work regardless. It’s a public limited company with committed and qualified team of professionals in all areas. People are hired on merit only. PTV groomed them. There are no media or industrial tycoons at the back of HUM TV. I feel in my two year contract, I have achieved the bulk of my objectives. My major responsibility was to create international linkages, and to link donors with HUM TV which I already have done. My life is stress free. I do not need to deal with use less paper pushers. People with me are here because they want to be. I am no longer marginalized at my work place because I am a woman. I get better pay, more respect and creative and enthusiastic people to work with – what more do you need to make you happy at work?” ■
This article was originally published in the print edition of “The Knit-Xtyle Fashion Review,” (Tkfr), issue 13, January 2006