The death of Saad Khan, the reality television contestant who tragically drowned while performing a challenge, has generated much online discussion in Pakistan. Though still not a major story in the news media, the topic has garnered numerous Facebook notes and groups, discussion forums, tweets, and blog posts. Here are the facts – Khan, a 32 year old father of four from Karachi, Pakistan was swimming across a lake with a seven kilogram backpack while filming in Bangkok for a Pakistani promotional TV show for Unilever shampoo. The News reported,
Something went drastically wrong when Khan was in the middle of the stunt. He suddenly turned on his back into a backstroke swimming style, and then, less than a minute later yelled for help. People reportedly began shouting at Khan to remove the backpack, but it was too late – Khan had begun to sink.
At this point, official Unilever statements diverge from other accounts of the incident. According to Fareshte Aslam, the information officer for Unilever Pakistan, “Horrified co-contestants and crew rushed to try to save him [Khan] but could not find him in the murky waters of the lake…Divers later recovered Khan’s body.” However, other sources contend that “no help came for Khan for up to six minutes while he was underwater,” an allegation Unilever has vehemently refuted.
Moreover, although Aslam asserted that all safety measures were taken, adding, “the participants were given the option of wearing life jackets but Saad opted out of it,” Farrukh Khan, a close friend of Saad Khan, provided a different account. On Sunday, he blogged, “She [Aslam] never spoke about the 7 kg bag which was fixed with each participant during this stunt, or the fact that none of the participants wore life jackets and the jackets were NOT mandatory.”
The drowning of Saad Khan is undoubtedly tragic, but his death has raised important issues, particularly related to the reality of reality television. First, who should be held accountable for this incident? Many have pointed the finger at Unilever, who have accepted no liability for the incident, but have noted there are “discussions to provide for Khan’s wife and four children ‘out of rightness.'” Aside from multinational corporations being a conspiratorial anagram for evil, the fact that the company did not publicize the August 19 death until Khan’s body was returned home to Karachi has raised eyebrows. At the same time, if the company did make contestants sign a security waiver, does that absolve them from blame? Should any responsibility be apportioned to the reality television contestants who sign up for such shows?
In the United States, every second program is a reality television show, each more trashy than the next. For television consumers, the era of reality television has fostered a new legion of lazy voyeurs, who receive glimpses into other people’s lives without ever leaving their couch. This oversaturation of “reality” has spilled over into the international arena. American Idol/Pop Idol has spin-offs in most countries, including India and Afghanistan. Programs like, I’m a Celebrity Get Me Outta Here have aired throughout the world, making cringeworthy D-list celebs like “Speidi” household names in even Pakistan.
At the end of the day, reality television exists because there is a continued demand for it. Khan’s tragic incident should therefore not only open debate on who to hold accountable, but also how this television phenomenon should be applied in Pakistan, or if it should be applied at all. Ultimately, more discussion should be dedicated to the reality behind reality television – as Saad Khan’s death so starkly demonstrates.