The corporate media, through advertising agencies and their association with television channels, has taken over the entertainment sector by storm, with drama-serials focusing more on product placement and content-marketing, than the story itself, direction and/or acting. It's a truth universally, and perhaps, grudgingly acknowledged, that a production does not work without its corporate sponsors; and that is precisely where the corporations play their big hands. Beginning from picking the director, producer and actors, they also influence how their products are integrated into the story. The question then is – where has the standard of entertainment fallen due this intrusion? And does acting have any real value anymore?
The business corporations, the corporate media (advertising agencies), the television channels and the industry itself – each has a role to play in the decline of quality programming.
“Well, of course the quality of entertainment would fall. They are making drama-fictions in vast numbers – 60, 70, 80 per season. There is one producer who is making 60 just for this upcoming Eid – each with a budget of Tk. 80,000 to 1-2 lakhs at most. It is impossible to make a quality 1-hour drama fiction with that kind of money,” says Mamunur Rashid, President of the Producer's Guild, prominent actor and theatre activist. With a budget like that, either the corporations and agencies choose which actors must be cast to suit their brand agendas, or the productions end up choosing 'affordable' actors instead of skilled ones.
According to Rashid, we are stuck in a vicious cycle. “It all begins with the channels which have their own political backing, support and campaigns. Their focus is not on providing quality entertainment anymore, but to keep their channels running to push their agendas.”
The producers who link themselves with these agencies and channels, or even belong to the agencies themselves, work on very low budgets, which, most of the time, do not get distributed proportionately among the cast and crew later on.
“They target directors who are desperate for work and also choose which artists they want, to push their brand agenda. Singers and models are now taking over the acting scene due to these personal motives, which is really hampering the art and tradition of acting itself,” continues Rashid. “How do media buying houses become producers themselves? Does it not tug at their ethics?” he asks.
On the other hand, media corporations believe that the quality of entertainment had been falling for a while now, and the reason for their intervention is to produce better content. “Our involvement in the entertainment industry has been recognised for around two years now. What about before that? Was the quality not falling then? Just in one Eid, say two-three years ago, around 700 television dramas were produced. They weren't branded content, but was the quality something to boast of? On the other hand, our branded content like Close-up kachhe ashar golpo has one of the highest TRPs,” argues Iresh Zaker, actor, television personality and managing director at Asiatic 360, one of the biggest corporate media houses in the country right now.
Iresh believes that the drop in quality entertainment and intervention of the corporate media are indicative of a much bigger problem, which should be recognised first and foremost. “We have around 30 television channels, with 30 different owners. Why are they there? What is their motivation? It goes back to their personal agendas,” he claims.
For most of theses owners, these channels are not their primary source of income – and so their lack of concern regarding quality programming is evident, Iresh thinks. None of these channels run on proper business models, unlike advanced markets abroad. “To bring back our viewers from foreign channels will be a gargantuan task—but someone needs to step in and enforce proper business models and drive better content. While there is still hope to bounce back to quality entertainment, the window of time is getting smaller still.”
There are also those who believe that the current system itself, where corporate media and television media are intertwined, may also work if more skilled and experienced people were employed to produce entertainment content.
“Advertising agencies and corporations can choose which actors, directors or script they want, but only if they understand what they want them for. Pushing their brand agenda should take a back seat and actual skills must be recognised by skilled people. If a script is sold, the producers, the sponsors and everyone involved must understand the story before they accept it and forget about how they can market their products and brands through it first,” says Matiya Banu Shuku, a television director and filmmaker. “We have guilds and associations who need to enforce rules and regulations; they must set standards that we need to follow. Without proper regulations, anyone can intervene in any manner they choose.”
Even if a little bit, due to the intervention of corporate media and traditional business corporations, the quality of entertainment is ultimately overlooked. Audiences are switching off drama-serials/fictions mid-air, due to the massive amounts of advertisements in between. And even while the drama-serials/fictions are on air, it is not uncommon to find banners and pop-ups of sponsored products surrounding the screen, making the actual content almost irrelevant.
“The tradition of acting, of growing into learned actors is dying out; good filmmakers are going out of business because they don't want to involve themselves in money games and politics; the channel proprietors are not cooperating, and ultimately it is the industry and its people who are being affected. Our standards have lowered and keep lowering, and it is the state's responsibility to nurture a taste for good quality in its people. Other countries have given so much importance to independent films and filmmakers. Why don't we?” asks Mamunur Rashid.
Iresh also believes that, as an industry, 'we are not taking ourselves seriously.'
So while the corporations are intervening, taking the lead, making decisions that ought not to be made by them, the industry is crying out for help, for redemption, to give due importance to the art of filmmaking and acting rather than profits or the TRP numbers.
More and more viewers are now cutting the cable and turning to DVDs, internet and other alternatives to get some breathing space—whether from the unbearable amount of advertisements or the low quality of local entertainment. Whatever it is, our television industry is the one facing dire times now and it needs addressing.
For, how long are we going to live as consumers instead of entertained viewers?