TheÂ Covid-19 pandemicÂ has had sweeping effects in the public health, business and travel sectors, among others. And while the repercussions for the entertainment industry may seem pale in comparison to the clear threat the virus poses to human life, the ripple effects do have implications for theÂ people around the world who make a living acting, producing or distributing television content, as well as the labour force that is utilised behind the camera in movies, music, and other mediums of entertainment.
The film industry worldwide was hit immediately after theaters started closing in China, Italy and the US, and major movie releases were delayed. There was some hope for the television industry as well as OTT platforms as the content to be aired is usually pre-produced, as we witnessed how the world cheered at the release of Money Heist Season 4. However, there is no light at the end of the tunnel for local television content. Not for now, it appears.
Pakistani viewers, who are stuck at home during lockdown, have fewer means to entertain themselves and television dramas indeed are a major source of at-home entertainment, especially when a vast majority of middle class/lower middle class households don’t have unrestrained access to the internet. Â SomeÂ of our much loved plays like Ehd-e-Wafa and Alif ended on the onset of the lockdown but a few new names have been added to our list like Pyar Ke Sadqay, Yeh Dil Mera,Â Muqaddar, Meher Posh, SabaatÂ and Raaz-e-Ulfat etc.
Not many of us know this but most episodes of Pakistani dramas are shot merely weeks ahead of their on-air schedules. With television productions grinding to a sudden halt, the pile of dramas that have already been shot is gradually tapering off. This is why, if not all channels, but some of them have resorted to repeat telecasts of their recently concluded and appreciated serials such as Cheekh and MPTH on ARY Digital.
Having said that, the lockdown has proven to be somewhat helpful in increasing the TRPs of many TV dramas. In an interview with Dawn, Abdullah Kadwani and Asad Qureshi of 7th Sky Entertainment talk at length about the successful ratings of their content and the possibility of delays in television drama productions. 7th Sky Entertainment, as the moment, has several popular serials on air, namely Muqaddar, Raaz e Ulfat, Deewangi, Kahin Deep Jaley, Meherposh and then Khoob Seerat and Munafiq, which air five times a week. 7th Sky Entertainment’s next high profile serial, Khuda Aur Mohabbat with Feroze Khan and Iqra Hussain in the lead, was also scheduled for release.
Recent Geo Entertainment shows such Munafiq, Kaheen Deep Jalay and Deewangi, from 7th Sky Entertainment, populate the second, third and fourth spot in the list of highest-rated shows in Pakistan with peak episode TRPs of 22.75, 20.02 and 18.85, respectively. The first and the fifth spot belong to ARYâ€™s repeat telecast of MPTH (at 34.47) and their 2018 hit Dil Moum Ka Diya (at 17.98).
Geoâ€™s Meher Posh clocked in 14.9 TRP when it debuted on April 3. The debut is staggering, somewhat unprecedented, but not quite unexpected, Abdullah Kadwani said.
Kadwani and Qureshi, are delighted by their consecutive string of successes, but they are fearful of what may come next.
â€œWith Raaz-e-Ulfat [which premiered on April 7] and Meher Posh, I would say that for now we are in the clear for a few weeks, but not months,â€ Qureshi said in his interview with Dawn.
“Iâ€™m concerned about the people who work on daily wages in the industry â€” the drivers, the spot boys, the assistants of assistants â€” people who went home with 500 or 1,000 rupees every day. The more privileged of the industry can afford to casually take this time out for R&R, to nonchalantly reflect on life. They donâ€™t have to worry about what they bring home the next day,â€ he said.
â€œA production has at least 50 people associated with it. Weâ€™re not saying that everyone should immediately return back to sets,â€ Qureshi continued, clarifying that the industry chose to willingly shut itself down to help bring down the curve of the infection. â€œHowever, a way out needs to be contemplated now, not later,â€ he said.
Abdullah Kadwani also emphasized that channel heads and production houses need to devise a plan so as to determine what can be done to hold audiences’ interest in the long term as well as provide vocation in this time of crises.
â€œItâ€™s not just the entertainment industry that suffers,â€ Kadwani added, inviting a broader look into the ordeal. â€œOther industries are still working with limited workforces, so why canâ€™t people in production do the same? Precautionary measures can be taken into consideration, productions can be set up with limited crew, then why is it not possible?â€ he asked.
Entertainment industry is looking at a bigger challenge — the dearth of content — and Abdullah certainly is ready to rise to the occasion.
“In these challenging times, when everyone is barricaded at home, people look up to the entertainment industry to give them a much-needed break,â€ Kadwani said adding, â€œWe inevitably become their ray of hope. This puts an added responsibility on us to rise to the occasion and meet the expectations of our viewers. We, as an industry, have been affected by the pandemic and sooner or later our fresh content will also be exhausted. It is therefore as big a challenge for us.â€
Ramadan is ahead of us and no targeted local content has been produced such as light-hearted comic plays like Suno Chanda. We heard about a few productions such as a Danish Nawaz directorial starring Osman Khalid Butt, Mira Sethi and Arslan Naseer but even that has not completed its shooting schedules. If the situation didn’t alleviate any sooner, we also cannot expect any special sehri or iftaar transmissions (barring they host them online or on sets under controlled conditions).
The bigger question for production houses is that for now they are reaping the benefits of an unusually elevated number of TV audience; everyone is glued to the screens, all thanks to prime time television, but it is short-lived as the outbreak (and subsequent lockdown) threatens the foundation of their business. When the programs run out and there is a dearth of fresh content, will they lose their existing audience to alternate mediums? Only time will tell.