When it comes to the coverage of elections on television, one thing is for sure: The age of innocence is lost. It is no longer a single state-owned channel giving counts of votes and updating viewers. The voices are many. The information is in overload. The fillers in between results are no longer comedy skits and milli naghmay. Pakistan has changed. And perhaps that is the need of the day. But there are viewers who continue to nostalgically look back at the PTV era of election coverage.
“PTV used to have one big board which one could follow as the results came in. There were just a couple of experts with comments. We’d all be plopped in front of the tv, and stayed there till the end, with sounds of ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ and ‘oh no’. One channel meant no flicking and getting disorientated,” says Karachi-based Dr Tasneem Zafar, who avidly follows political developments in the country. “At that point, one doesn’t want to hear people; you just want to know if your candidate or party won. Isn’t that what really matters? Who won, who lost, how many seats, and who will form the government?” she says.
Atif Amin, an event manager in Karachi, echoes the sentiment of many viewers who nostalgically feel that election coverage in bygone years used to bring families together. He reminisces how the entertainment — Moin Akhtar, Anwar Maqsood, Bushra Ansari, Benjamin Sisters, Madam Noor Jehan, Alamgir, The Vital Signs and more — made election a time to come together and take joy and pride in being Pakistani. People looked forward to staying up all night, planning sleepovers. It was an atmosphere of festivity.
“However, the Pakistanis of today have seen too many wrongs done to them and their country. Perhaps, this is why both the media and the viewers are more realistic, more politically aware, and more cynical. Hence, elections are not just a time for entertainment anymore, but more of anticipation, hope, or possibly even despair,” says Amin.
Renowned columnist and media person Ghazi Salahuddin remembers the election coverage of 1970 as the one that set the tone for all those that followed in following elections. “That was the mother of all election transmissions,” he says, adding how select intellectuals were part of that coverage.
“Now there are too many news channels and they are all partisan. We have a 100 plus talk shows daily which gets very confusing for the viewership,” says Salahuddin.
In his opinion, the pre-poll environment in 2018 cast a shadow on the air of festivity that generally accompanies election coverage. “Results came late, and results on different channels contradicted the others,” he says.
Journalist and tv anchor Zarrar Khuhro finds the comparison with the PTV-style coverage of yesteryear not contextual or relevant anymore. “The style of election coverage in Pakistan has changed since the last three consecutive elections of 2008, 2013, and now 2018,” says Khuhro.
He comments there is a hundred per cent overload of political comment in election coverage presently. “There are 12 talking heads on every news channel. When the results slowed down due to the RTS failure, and tv channels no longer had the usual fillers, it was the tv hosts and anchors who had to fill in those gaps impromptu.”
Salahuddin is of the opinion that the overload of political commentary on political talk shows, particularly in election coverage, has been responsible for a lot of substance being lost. He aptly quotes T. S. Eliot’s words from the pageant play The Rock. “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”
Amin says that news channels in general and talk shows in particular have played a major role in making politics a part of daily lives of Pakistanis. “As a child, my only interest in elections was limited to entertainment. But my children who are in their teens are more aware, because I am more aware, and because the tv blasts politics all day every day.”
In the opinion of some discerning viewers, the days preceding the elections of 2018, the coverage included something very new and useful which was that reporters were covering how people from relevant constituencies, especially the youth, could be seen accosting their MPAs, asking them what they did for their constituency, and why do they feel they deserve the votes. This was done relentlessly, showing parliamentarians left with no choice but to listen to the criticism in front of the cameras, and sometimes even bear with people venting their anger.
In Amin’s opinion it is important to have timely and smart election coverage to keep the audiences updated, but it needs to be more balanced, interspersing updates with entertainment, and patriotic songs to keep people happier and positive “It is important, at election time, to give out vibes that promote patriotism and hope,” he says.
Democratic transfer of power, after all, is cause for celebration. And a new government is cause for renewed hopes for Pakistan. Along with fact-based coverage, it is important to keep the spirit of hope alive.