Pakistan mirrors U.S. television sleaze

Samaa TV has fired Maya Khan for refusing to apologize over her controversial morning show episode.

By Eric Mink

The people of Pakistan may be on to something when it comes to atrocious TV.

This past Saturday, an independent station based in the capital city, Islamabad, fired the host of a highly rated morning program along with show’s producer and much of the staff and then cancelled the show altogether.

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The station, Samaa TV, acted only after a fierce public outcry over a live broadcast of the show, “Subah Saverey Maya kay Sath,” on Jan. 17. That was when host Maya Khan and a gang of a dozen or so local harridans roamed through a seaside park in Karachi chasing down and haranguing young couples.

Khan and her fellow vigilantistas accosted the young people for being together in public-walking, talking, sitting on benches overlooking the Arabian Sea-supposedly in violation of Islamic law. Pakistani civil law imposes no such restrictions. The self-appointed enforcers demanded to know if the couples’ parents were aware of what they were doing. When one couple said they were married, Khan insisted that they produce their marriage certificate, the New York Times reported.

(You can watch the show online at http://goo.gl/aRQld.) I suppose it helps if you understand Urdu, but tone of voice, facial expressions and body movements say a lot.)

Pakistani viewers condemned the spectacle, condemned Khan and her thugs for conducting it and condemned Samaa TV for broadcasting it. Activist groups organized online protests and threatened a civil suit at Pakistan’s Supreme Court. Newspaper editorials savaged Samaa for pursuing ratings by invading the privacy of ordinary people who were doing nothing wrong.

The station apologized last week. So did Khan, but her remarks were widely viewed as insincere. Last weekend, Samaa TV’s chief executive, Zafar Siddiqi, released a statement saying Khan and the show’s staff were being sacked and the program cancelled as of Monday. Siddiqi also is president of CNBC in Pakistan and chairman of CNBC Africa and CNBC Arabiya.

It’s tempting to hope that American viewers might be inspired by their Pakistani counterparts, who rejected the sleazy tactics of a cynically concocted, ethically bereft TV show and forced it off the air through people power. But I don’t see much evidence that U.S. viewers have anything against the sleazy tactics of cynically concocted, ethically bereft reality shows. To the contrary: We can’t seem to get enough of the stuff.

American channels today abound with shows about “real” housewives and “real” families of pseudo-celebrities, about making people over and making over living spaces. There’s “Hoarders,” “Hoarding” and “Hoarding: Buried Alive.” There’s “Extreme Couponing” and “Extreme RVs.” There are “House Hunters,” “Auction Hunters” and “Storage Hunters.”

A&E offers “Storage Wars” and Shipping Wars.” On the Food Network, it’s “Cupcake Wars.” Having covered all of history, the History Channel now spotlights odd ways of making a living: “Ice Road Truckers,” “Ax Men” (loggers), “Pawn Stars” and “American Pickers.”

Some of these shows are entertaining enough in limited doses-decent casting, reasonably well told stories, capable technical execution-but it’s virtually impossible to hide the fakery within the so-called reality. The non-actors play to the camera, delivering lines just a bit too cleanly to be spontaneous. It’s not hard to sense comments plucked out of context and repositioned by nimble editors and producers to emphasize people and plots that will keep viewers viewing.

These production tricks-it is show business, after all-are benign enough when all you’re showing are couples fussing over who bid too much for the scuzzy contents of an abandoned storage unit.

Less benign when the stakes are upped in network competitions like “The Bachelor,” “The Biggest Loser,” “Big Brother,” “The Amazing Race,” “Survivor,” or various incarnations of “The Apprentice” in which people scheme to win a spot at the feet of serial business failure Donald Trump.

In constructing these kinds of shows, clever producers coax contestants to do and say what’s needed for a predetermined storyline. Then they take their manipulated raw material to the digital editing console and transform generally ordinary people into “characters” with “personalities” and “relationships” that may well be manufactured out of whole cloth.

Of course, abusing people’s trust this way doesn’t rise to the level of religious hectoring in a public park in a country torn by sectarian violence and political assassinations. But it’s pretty nauseating when you think about it, even by entertainment standards, and it’s just weird that American viewers don’t even seem annoyed by the shameless phoniness of it all.

I left the field of full-time television criticism just as the reality show phenomenon was catching fire, when networks and program producers still exercised some restraint. In 1999, even Fox Broadcasting execs saw the disaster that awaited them if they said yes to a pitch to buy a full-sized jetliner and film it crashing into the desert, presumably with no one aboard. They said no.

But barely two years later, Fox didn’t hesitate on “Temptation Island,” which dumped unmarried couples and unattached singles on a pleasant island off the coast of Central America and encouraged cheating for the camera. Classy concept.

The best thing I ever saw, heard or read about reality television was, fittingly enough, fiction. Last summer, public radio’s “This American Life” aired an 18-minute segment called “The November Story,” a short story about a low-level reality show producer named Christine. Quietly savage, occasionally sweet and read by its author, Rebecca Makkai, the story perfectly captured the utter cynicism at the heart of reality television.

I tend to avoid reality shows, which isn’t all that difficult when you consider what scams they are. I also bear in mind one of the best insults I ever got from a reader. “I just read your column,” he wrote some years ago, “and I am now dumber than I was before I read it.”

Consuming too much reality television leaves me feeling dumber than I felt before I saw it, and, frankly, I can’t afford to lose any more brainpower than I absolutely have to.

Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University. His Jewish Light column appears the first edition of each month. He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York. His e-mail address is [email protected]