January Issue 2007

By | Arts & Culture | Business | Published 17 years ago

In a corner of the room is a 29-inch television playing MTV Pakistan. The channel is just a couple of weeks young and screams out energy, creativity and youth in the spacious office marked by large, aging exposed wood beams and a worn-out Persian rug. In fact, in this old downtown office building in Karachi, the channel is the perfect symbol of the television industry in Pakistan: fast-moving, ever-growing and young.

Of course, television itself is not new in Pakistan. But the government’s open-door policy that has allowed dozens of private satellite channels to set up shop is. So it’s only fitting that behind the desk in this large office is not only the man behind bringing MTV to Pakistan, but also a man who has seen the industry evolve.

Ghazanfar Ali has been in television since the mid-sixties when he worked with PTV. In 2000, he launched Indus Vision, the country’s first independent satellite channel. As such, he’s garnered the label of ‘pioneer.’

“A pioneer is a fool who has made it,” says Ghazanfar self-deprecatingly. “If I didn’t make it, then what would I have been called?”

But he did make it. And today, following in his footsteps are a bevy of new television tycoons who have made it. Or, at least, it seems like they have.

There has been a literal explosion in broadcasting since Islamabad opened up the airwaves in 2000. Today there are over 50 Pakistani television channels. And more are on the way. The TV boom is great for the viewing public (more options), great for the economy (more jobs) and great for entrepreneurs (more opportunities to make more money).

Every industry goes through this infancy stage, characterised by high growth and tons of competition. “Right now we see overnight kings and a slew of people enjoying their 15 minutes,” says Amber Rana, general manager creative at Geo. Of course, these good times will not last forever. “There will be a shakedown.” There always is.

There were over 1,800 car manufacturers based in the US between 1896 and 1930. Today, there are just the big three: Chrysler, Ford and General Motors.

While many industry insiders believe that a “shakedown” or consolidation phase is at least three to five years away, Ghazanfar’s take on the current state of the industry is a bit more dramatic. “It could happen tomorrow. It all depends on sustainability.” And according to him sustainability is a big issue in itself. “I don’t know if anybody’s making any money out of this — any of these channels.” He then gains sudden confidence in his supposition. “Absolutely sure,” he says.

Ghazanfar doesn’t expound why he would make such a gloomy (and sweeping) generalisation about the industry, but whatever the reason, he won’t deny that there will be winners and losers. Right now, he is favouring the big players. In fact, the big players are a major cause of the ballooning number of channels. “Once a channel becomes successful, the additional cost to open a new channel is very low,” says Duraid Qureshi, CEO of Eye Television Network, broadcaster of Hum TV. “Also, they already have advertisers lined up with them, and so for these old groups, launching a new channel is easier, cost effective, and yet increases their revenues significantly.” Qureshi’s Eye Network has launched a second channel, a specialty food channel, Masala, and ARY, Geo and Indus all have multiple channels.

It’s these established players Ghazanfar sees as being in the game for the long haul. “But you can count them on your fingers,” he says. “Geo, ARY, Aaj TV and TV One will probably stay, and maybe we’ll stay too, but beyond that I don’t know. I think people are living on hope.”

Of course, if you work for any other channel, you need not panic and start looking for a new job just yet. The niche language channels are likely to survive too; they each have a unique, committed audience. “This game is about niches,” says Ghazanfar. “But they will get competition, too.”

His comment seems rooted in personal experience. Ghazanfar is a pioneer in the business. Indus Television was the first private network on the block. But despite having first-mover advantage, his network is no longer king of the television castle. Accepted wisdom on the street ranks Geo on top, followed by ARY, Hum and then Indus. Incidentally, Indus was the first to launch a music channel. However, competition in the form of ARY’s The Musik, Geo’s Aag, and Aaj TV’s Play has made life difficult for Indus.

In this light, it makes perfect sense that Indus Music adopted the MTV brand. Under a barrage of new music channels, it may be the best way for IM to instantly shake things up, boost its stature here, get a nod of recognition abroad and secure its place as a leader in music television on the Pakistani scene. And Ghazanfar admittedly feels very good about his MTV franchise. “I have to be positive. No international brand comes into a market that is gasping for breath; they always come in where there is value.”

And by some accounts, the value here is good. Qureshi from Hum TV says television channels are making money and will keep on making money. “A few channels may close here and there — small channels that have not invested very much might shut down — but there are very few of them. The current players,” he says, “are earning big revenues.”

The big revenues are coming from healthy ad spending. Across Pakistan, a competitive economic environment coupled with strong consumer spending has catapulted the advertising industry to new heights. The telecom industry, in particular, has been one of the biggest spenders on advertising. The entry of Telenor and Warid into the market, and their aggressive promotion of their new services, forced the existing players to increase their ad spending. The overall effect on the economy was huge. The banking sector has been a very active advertiser as well, and it will continue to be as private banking, consumer loans and investment plans maintain their popularity. Now, according to Qureshi, a third big source of ad revenue has arrived; this time it is from the construction business. “Companies like Emaar and Al-Buraj Group are advertising on television.”

Amazingly, despite all this supply of on-air ad space with the birth of so many new channels, ad rates on the satellite channels continue to climb. When Geo launched, it was selling ad time for between 5,000 to 10,000 rupees per minute. ARY and Indus had similar rates. Now, Geo’s prime time tariff rates (undiscounted) are quoted at 75,000 rupees. Among the other top channels, ARY One World and Indus Vision command 60,000 rupees, while Hum TV and Aaj TV ask for 45,000 and 37,500 rupees respectively for a 60-second prime time spot. However, channels rarely earn these full-fare tariffs. Discounts based on buying volume can be large, and there are dozens of other channels earning a lot less.

The next batch of channels — those coming a bit late to the party — will have a tough time making money. “I think with the market increasing by 15-20 per cent in ad spend every year — the last two to three years it grew by approximately 30 per cent annually — you will be able to see another five or 10 channels come up and still be able to break even,” says Qureshi.

tv-2-jan07One of those new channels that insiders will be watching closely is DawnNews TV. The Dawn Group of Newspapers is currently preparing for the launch of their English-language news and business channel. With its established, well-respected brand, it is sure to attract tens of thousands of viewers immediately. But if it is all-English, it will have a limited audience, a small fraction of the 150 million people in the country.

However, despite their theoretically limited viewership, their ads rates could jump to the high-end of the private network spectrum. It depends on how they position themselves. The channel could try to attract premium lifestyle advertisers by proposing that their English-speaking audience has a certain high-end lifestyle and larger disposable income, and as such, ad rates need to be higher for this filtered audience of educated and high income viewers.

Imran Khan, head of marketing at Aaj TV, has reservations about Dawn’s potential for success. “If they become a regional channel, I think it is a wonderful idea. But as an all-English channel in Pakistan alone, it will be difficult to challenge the established networks.” As such, he’s unconvinced that they will be able to demand top dollar for advertisements.

His reasoning is not unsound. Advertisers seem to care little about programme content or viewer demographics. Advertisers here in Pakistan have only two criteria for television ad strategies: the timing pot and the channel rating. In terms of time slots, “Dominating prime time is the primary concern,” says Amber Rana from Geo, a one-time advertising executive. And dominating prime time on the top-viewed channels is the ideal situation. The business side is not so affected by content. “That’s because they haven’t understood niche marketing. They think only in terms of mass marketing. The only niche marketing that exists on television is based on language.” In Pakistan, it’s all about the number of eyeballs watching a channel.

tv-3-jan07There is a problem with that. In Pakistan, there is no accurate viewership measuring device, like a ‘people metre.’ A people metre is an electronic device that monitors exactly which channel is being watched. Industry players, including the Pakistan Broadcasters Association (PBA) and the Pakistan Advertiser’s Society (PAS), are in the process of short listing one, which will be similar to the Nielsen rating system that operates in North America and Europe. Right now, though, viewership is taken based on small researchers and focus groups. In fact, the current measuring system involves a viewing diary. At home, viewers keep a hand-written account of what they watch. The manual system is prone to inaccuracies. In short, the whole system is perception-based.

Through all the industry’s growth and change, PTV’s ad rates have remained relatively unchanged. “I blame this on all the marketing guys and sales people at PTV, who have been unable to increase their rates despite inflation — the cost of programming has increased — and despite the increase in ad rates on other channels,” says Qureshi. Still, because of PTV’s huge terrestrial network and reach — their viewership is by far the largest in the country — PTV has the highest ad rates in the business: almost 180,000 rupees for a 60-second prime time advertisement.

PTV is the mother of all television channels. Ghazanfar Ali, Sultana Siddiqui, Athar Viqar Azeem, Zaheer Khan and Iqbal Ansari all learned the tools of the trade at PTV before branching out on their own or joining new players. That is why it is heartbreaking to watch the private channels roll in and roll by in terms of creativity and content. Many viewers have almost permanently tuned out the national broadcaster. “I think PTV has woken up to the idea that there needs to be a change,” says Ghazanfar. With seemingly limitless levels of government bureaucracy and a conservative outlook, the motivation to innovate never gathered momentum. “But they have the best infrastructure,” says the Indus CEO, “and now they are bringing in young people.”

Change needs to take place across the industry. Aaj’s Imran Khan says there are big issues with recovery of payments. The lag between the airing of the ad and the payment for the service needs to be shortened. Currently, it can take in excess of 60 days. In an industry that is almost 100 per cent reliant on advertising for revenue, the delays can be painful. Khan thinks PEMRA needs to ban advertisers who are delinquent with payments.

“PEMRA should also be implementing laws and rules that will improve the viewing experience,” says Khan. “There should be a cap on the number of ads per hour of programming.

tv-4-jan07Another issue is that some media buying houses have an inappropriate degree of power in the industry. “One company,” says Khan, “holds as much as 60 per cent of the air-time. They then get involved in dictating content.” The industry, through the PBA, must neutralise this effect, he says.

But the biggest problem across the industry lies in talent. There is a dearth of good talent behind the scenes and on-air. And without good talent, it is not easy filling 24 hours of programming.

Right now most people in the industry “don’t know what makes good TV. They like to copy Star Plus,” says Geo’s Amber Rana. And when they are not looking south for inspiration, producers and writers are looking west. “But what works for the goras, may not work for us.”

“Tons of experimentation is still going on,” says Rana. “That discovery is there, but mistakes happen on-air.” In the end, programming that is off the mark “alienates the audience as well,” adds Rana. Broadcasters are starting to identify what works, but they don’t know who can help them realise their goals. What will rescue them is good market research. “Consumer insight is very necessary,” says Rana. “The top American and European companies rely on focus groups.”

Here, market research, according to Rana, falls into three dismal categories: copying companies abroad, guesswork and the boss dictating what should be done.

This Pakistani approach insults viewers. “It insults their intelligence,” says Rana. “They know when they are watching substandard material.”

A by-product of the lack of talent is fear. Many TV channels are not comfortable in their own skin and are afraid of being labelled with the “P-word” says Rana. “They are afraid of being too PTV-ish.” In other words, too old school, unsophisticated and seen as catering to the masses.

A sign of truly good programming is buzz. Sadly, in Pakistan there isn’t any. There isn’t even one show that people characterise as a must-see — the kind of show that generates ‘water-cooler talk’ at the office the next day.

Fixing the dearth in talent will come with time. Currently, there are limited resources and know-how in the industry. Most training happens on the job. Outside the workplace, good training is scarce. There are only a handful of universities offering filmmaking and in-depth broadcasting-related courses. Beacon House National University has degree programmes in film and TV studies, Indus Valley School of Art offers courses in filmmaking and IQRA has a growing programme in media sciences. Otherwise, a number of universities across the country offer degrees in mass communication that are starting to place more of a focus on the electronic media.

The Pakistan Press Foundation (PPF) offers journalism training programmes for working professionals. These short three- or four-day workshops focus on reporting, feature writing or investigative journalism, and can even be topic-specific, such as understanding government issues and how to cover civic problems. Currently, no full courses are available, but the long-term plan — maybe five years down the road — is to set up a media university.

As the inevitable consolidation phase approaches, where the weak collapse and the promising, small players get swallowed up by deep-pocketed rivals, survival in the end will depend on putting out the best content. And quality content depends on people. “Technology is easy to buy, but your systems and how you groom, train and retain your people is the real key,” says Qureshi. “Channels need the right kind of management to keep them happy and create an environment in the organisation that is more creative than politicised, where people encourage each other.” In TV, the team is everything. The reality is, however, that competition is already driving costs up as rivals fight for talent. The battle for television supremacy has already started to squeeze margins.

So the search for talent continues. Of course, as people continue learning, insiders like Rana believe things will get better. Another big plus for the industry is that the country’s infamous brain drain looks like it’s reversing, at least somewhat, she says. Talented, experienced people are coming back home in bigger numbers, like never before — and Rana is one of them (she came back for a holiday and never left).

Overall, the future television landscape in Pakistan will look a whole lot different. As Ghazanfar says, it will be all about niches. There will be very few hybrid channels and many more regional and news channels. Movie channels, sports channels, youth channels and food channels are already here. As such, Ghazanfar’s recent move to secure the MTV brand, and thus secure his spot in the music channel niche, makes perfect strategic sense.

Of course, in this land of unstable governments, a new and potentially less media-tolerant leader could be running the show in Islamabad at any time, and then the media’s newfound glory days could come to an abrupt halt.

Stay tuned to the developments in this industry — they promise to be thrilling. This is reality television in the truest sense of the word.