The South Asia Channel

AfPak Behind the Lines: Pakistani TV through the years

This installment of AfPak Behind the Lines looks at Pakistani television and the Pakistan-U.S. relationship with Luv Puri. 1) USAID recently announced that it is funding a remake of Sesame Street for Pakistan. How unique is this effort to bring American television to Pakistan, historically? Sesame Street was first aired in Pakistan in English in ...


This installment of AfPak Behind the Lines looks at Pakistani television and the Pakistan-U.S. relationship with Luv Puri.

1) USAID recently announced that it is funding a remake of Sesame Street for Pakistan. How unique is this effort to bring American television to Pakistan, historically?

Sesame Street was first aired in Pakistan in English in the late 1980s and early 1990s, though it was far from the only exposure Pakistanis got to American television and culture. Interestingly, Pakistan Television (PTV) became one of the key instruments through which the U.S.-Pakistan civil alliance during the Afghan jihad gained a popular acceptance at the civil society level in Pakistan. In the 1980’s, television viewers in Pakistan were also exposed to the saga of African Americans’ arrival to the United States of America through the broadcast of televised version of the famous novel of Alex Haley, "Roots: The Saga of an American Family", which gave Pakistani viewers an interesting and vivid exposure to the brutal history of the slave trade and struggles of the African American community in the United States, from the 18th-century until the present.

On a lighter note, Pakistani viewers were also treated to episodes of Star Trek, as well as Full House, which for many gave a sense into the complex aspects of parenting in the West. This heavy dose of American entertainment was going on simultaneously with and at the end of then-dictator Gen. Zia ul-Haq’s government-sponsored Islamization drive in Pakistan, which ended with Zia’s mysterious death in 1988. Every evening, PTV news displayed the shots of the mujahideen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. In fact, Zia’s Islamization drive and American entertainment often had their own followers even within the same family, as it was mostly urban, English-speaking families who had access to and could understand shows like Full House (which went on the air at the tail end of the Islamization drive). There was no contradiction between the two parallel trends at the time, because of the political alignment between America and Pakistan and even with the Muslim world at large. There was instead a kind of acceptance of both, a feeling that the American value system and Islamic worlds view could live side by side.

The two strands began to diverge as political alignments and coalitions began to fracture in the 1990s, after the anti-Soviet jihad was finished and the U.S. moved on to other issues, such as nuclear non-proliferation and a post-Soviet Europe. This change in focus put the United States at odds with Pakistan, whose interests and concerns remained firmly rooted in South Asian politics, namely India and the emerging chaos in Afghanistan.

2) How does Pakistan’s English-language entertainment media compare with the Urdu options, both in the past and today?

In the 1990’s, after the United States imposed sanctions on Pakistan for its nuclear program, there was a sudden transformation even with respect to the content of the media, as American programming became minimal. However, the short-lived democratic government of Benazir Bhutto (who was Pakistan’s prime minister from 1988 until 1990 and again from 1993 until 1996) brought about a golden age of Pakistani Urdu theater broadcast on PTV.

This theater engaged with the societal problems of the day. Urdu dramas such as 1989’s Neelay Haath (literally "Blue Hands," meant to represent the appearance of hands after torture or abuse) raised the issue of injustices perpetrated against Pakistani women by both the state and society during Zia’s regime. There were also programs which accommodated the ethnic diversity of Pakistan, such as televised theater productions that educated the audience about various aspects of Baluch and Pashtun history and culture, with a heavy emphasis on the historic Pashtun resistance to British occupation (though unsurprisingly no concurrent focus on Baluch nationalism or separatism). The progressive spirit of theater was lost as democracy became more and more tenuous in the country with every passing day, and Pakistani society became more and more disappointed in the failure of Benazir Bhutto’s government to bring about the change and improvements that many thought were sure to come from her leadership.   

By the time Gen. Pervez Musharraf took over, Pakistan had been infected by the crass commercialism of TV programming, something that had already taken place in neighboring India. This goldgen age of Urdu drama was over. PTV had to compete with other private satellite channels, and the market dictated the agenda, leaving little space or even resources available to socially relevant or educational entertainment.

3) Then-Pakistani president Musharraf oversaw a dramatic expansion of electronic media in Pakistan beginning in the early 2000s. What has the impact of the spread of an independent media been for Pakistan?

 Musharraf made the decision to open up electronic media in 2002; a total of 83 licenses for satellite TV channels were issued during the Musharraf era, including about 38 for news and current affairs channels. Around 47 percent of the Pakistani population watches television, and over 60 percent of the total population lives in rural areas. But in the absence of strong civil society institutions, the Pakistani airwaves have become a platform for forming public opinion on geo-strategic issues. Unfortunately, there is little socially relevant content on some of the critical domestic challenges facing the country.

Pakistan in many ways fits the typical pattern seen in the democratization process of many developing countries, as discussed in in the seminal work of American political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies. The political and civil society institutions in Pakistan are too few and too weak to provide space to politicized sections of the society to vigorously participate in debate on everyday issues. TV in Pakistan is a rare medium where politicians and civil society actors can reach out to the masses and engage with the issues; however, the structure of popular TV debates, with the exception of a few cases, is such that they have to simplify complex political and social problems, leading to increased populism that results in some of the relevant details being missed or distorted.  In such an environment, developments are seen through a simpler, but more starkly divisive, lens.

Luv Puri is a political analyst, who has written two books on South Asian political and security issues. He recently published Across the Line of Control based on field work in Pakistan and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

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