April 29 (Reuters) – In normal times, Pakistanis hungry for entertainment during the fasting month of Ramadan would avidly watch television game shows as contestants, urged on by rowdy studio audiences, compete for lavish prizes. But this is not a normal time.
Measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus have meant there are no studio audiences, and contestants appear by video-link on some shows, while on others they phone in their answers, or send a text message.
“But it is not as if we won’t be entertained, or stop smiling,” Fahad Mustafa, the host of “Jeeto, Pakistan”, which translates as “Win, Pakistan”, explained apologetically at the start of first show during the holy month.
“It is not as if we’re going to stop the Ramadan ritual of entertaining you,” said Mustafa.
The cooking shows and religious programmes that vie with the game shows for audience share are also having to adjust to the restrictions, as authorities try to head-off a full-blown epidemic, as the number of cases in Pakistan topped 13,000 this week, including 281 deaths.
Mustafa’s show on ARY Entertainment channel had become one of the most popular in the country thanks partly to its large, boisterous studio audience – but now Mustafa just talks to the camera.
Prizes offered by game shows have been downsized too, partly due to lack of money and partly out of respect for the more sombre national mood.
Television advertising and sponsorship typically spikes higher during Ramadan, but this year they have nosedived along with the economy that entered a partial lockdown around a month ago.
“Each channel was competing over whose set was going to be bigger, and who was bringing in celebrities,” said Agha Zohaib, managing director at Mindshare, one of Pakistan’s top marketing agencies. “But now we’re seeing 30%-45% cuts in expenditure on the TV advertising side.”
According to a nationwide poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan, 49% of Pakistanis said they had stopped working because of the pandemic, and 84% said they had lost a significant portion of their income.
And Pakistan’s media watchdog issued a notice warning the shows’ makers to avoid ostentatious displays during Ramadan, as the “world is suffering from hunger, scarcity of resources, and joblessness.”
Last year the prizes included gold bars and cars, and in earlier years offered a private jet, while another surprised two childless couples with orphaned babies.
Cars are still among the featured prizes, but the giveaways are mostly more modest this year.
“You just won’t see the kind of rambunctious shows you saw before,” said Nadeem Raza, a producer at Such Television.