Religious Media Content- A Cable TV Phenomenon
BY GAYATRI MURTHY (Researcher with InterMedia’s AudienceScapes Project)
In less than a decade, the private media revolution in Pakistan has seen the introduction of more than 100 new private channels. The liberalization of Pakistan’s cable and satellite TV market by the government in the aftermath of the Kargill war opened the door for private media. This led to the introduction, for the first time, of non-state Pakistani voices.
The rise in a number of cable and satellite channels has made more content available, albeit for a privileged few. People not only have more choices from where they can get their current affairs news, but also from where they may get information on religion, and even discuss and debate religion. This is a very different situation from most religious programming on Pakistan’s state-owned media, in which religious scholars give lectures to a completely silent group of people.
The popularization of religious issues through the introduction of privately-run religious channels and programs is a major development in Pakistan’s media. With the advent of private media, new formats for religious shows are beginning to emerge, albeit slowly.
According to the BBC Pakistan 2008 survey, Quran TV (QTV) is one of the most watched television channels in Pakistan (featuring in the top 5, see here). QTV, part of the ARY Digital Network of channels in Pakistan, is a private religious channel broadcasting Islamic programming, including talk shows.
At first glance, a majority of the content on this Urdu (national language) channel seems to focus simply on imparting the direct teachings of Islam. A show called QUR’AN SUNIYE AUR SUNAIYE, features Quranic recitation. AL-FURQAN, AHKAM-E-SHARIAT, RAH-E-NIJAT, ANWAR-UL-HADEES (live program) and AKHLAAQ-E-MUHAMMADI (SAW) are some other strictly religious and conservative programs. The channel’s websites feature a number of religiously oriented functions, including information on times for Namaz (prayer), links to the Islamic calendar, as well as videos on “how to perform the Namaz.” Visitors to the website can also download audio files of Hamds (religious songs) and Naats (religious poetry).
However, Quran TV also features a series of discussion, talk and call-in shows. NIGHT TIME,a prime time call-in show, hosted by Junaid Iqbal & Tasleem Sabri,features religious scholars who take questions from viewers. Most such discussion-based programs are hosted by or feature popular Islamic scholars and intellectuals.
Interestingly, QTV also broadcasts shows featuring some rather unusual topics. ISLAM AUR MODERN SCIENCE focuses on health and science, albeit through a religious lens. The goal of the show is to reconcile religious teachings with present day science and technology.
In addition, there are lighter entertainment programs featuring Qawwali music (a form of Sufi devotional music popular in South Asia). Another program, KHUSHBU-E-HASSAN, broadcasts Naat poetry (poetry that specifically praises the Islamic prophet Muhammad).
QTV targets some of its programming to specific demographic groups. HAREEM-E-NAAT focuses on women and Islam, by encouraging Naat poetry among women. KAINAAT MIEL RUNG is a talk show oriented specifically for women and showcases famous Muslim women in history. Shows targeting children include PHOOLON BHARI SHAAM and Q FOR QUIZ (a Quran-based quiz show). FIKR-E-NAO targets young college and university students.
Nasira Khan, a program manager at QTV, speaking to Outlook Magazine (India) in 2006 (when Quran TV was gaining popularity throughout the subcontinent), said, “It is providing answers on a wide range of day-to-day issues that concern the community. The channel, for instance, has programs where fatwas and human rights are discussed and debated at length which has elicited a good response from its viewers.” 
Quran TV enjoys strong Pakistani viewership, according to the BBC Pakistan 2008 survey. About 20 percent of television viewers reported watching Quran TV at least weekly.
Among TV viewers, viewership increases along with income and education, as depicted in Chart 1. Quran TV is much more popular among urban TV viewers than among rural viewers. Thirty-six percent of urban TV viewers watch Quran TV weekly; only 6 percent of rural TV viewers do so. A clear factor hindering rural viewership is that rural TV viewers are much less likely to have home access to cable TV (and thereby Quran TV) than are urban viewers. However, the disparity in viewership between urban and rural viewers is still staggering when compared to other popular channels.
In addition, the largest proportion of Quran TV viewers resides in the Sindh province- one of the most urban and economically developed states in Pakistan. Contrary to popular thought, where it is believed that religious content often has only fringe appeal, Quran TV has mainstream and even elite appeal.
Other Religiously Oriented Cable TV
Quran TV was the first Islamic television station introduced to Pakistan (2003), but is not the only one. Ilim TV and Labbaik TV are just two of a number of other Islamic channels that have begun broadcasting since the opening of the television media market. In addition to religious channels, two leading general entertainment cable channels, Geo TV, with its Alim Online, and Duniya TV also broadcast extremely popular religious talk shows. 
These shows do not feature didactic speeches- instead they have become popular by including audience participation. Often, religious scholars face university students and other participants who call in with questions.  Occasionally Alim Online also features famous personalities that discuss issues of religion and culture, as they relate to society and current affairs. Here too, audiences are encouraged to chime in, ask questions and offer their own opinions. Referring to the show as “revolutionized religious programming” on their website, Aalim Online defines itself as a show promoting harmony and tolerance, through discussion and analysis. 
Interestingly, the website also refers to a changing environment in Pakistan and the world at large, where a talk show on religion and Islam, must include discussions on other topics in its ambit such as suicide bombings, honor killings, terrorism, Fatwas and other socio-political, geo-political and cultural issues that directly or indirectly relate to Islam.
The content on Quran TV, and shows such as Alim online, shows that discussion and talk shows focus on informing audiences about Islam, and particularly clearing misconceptions around it. Although a majority of the content on QTV may seem didactic or conservative, there are some shows that encourage fair and honest discussion regarding Islam in the West and within modern Pakistani society. QTV in particular has shows targeting youth, children and women (although viewership is not much higher for these demographic groups according to the survey). They attempt to integrate religion into a modern social fabric in an environment where Islam is often seen to be irreconcilable with modernism. Since many of the religious channels discussed here are available online, they are also able to target audiences worldwide. They have been created and indeed popularized in a specific context in a post 9/11 world. Current affairs have necessitated an environment in Pakistan and other Muslim nations where dialogue and discussion on the nature of Islam has become important.
A 2009 survey conducted by Gallup in Pakistan in 2009  revealed that an equal percentage of survey respondents (34 and35 percent respectively) agreed or disagreed that the influence of religion is increasing in Pakistani society; close to 30 percent believed there had been no change.  The lack of a definitive opinion from these respondents may suggest a society in flux. Cable and satellite television has only been introduced to Pakistani homes recently – providing them with greater options for consuming news, entertainment as well as religious content. Whether new religious channels and programming will foster dialogue or inhibit it and more importantly to what effect they will have on society at large, is yet to be determined. However, this new availability to sources of information and discussion is certainly welcome..
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