KARACHI / ISLAMABAD: Channel surfing now feels like drowning. You turn on the television and desperately search for clarity. Breaking news is the prime minister breathing. Talk show analyses smack of doomsday conspiracies. But we also realize that Pakistan is no ordinary country with its coups and carnage. We watch helplessly as the 7pm news cycle is steamrolled by events unfolding at 9pm. There are over 100 channels to watch so why does it seem like nothing is on?
From the people we spoke to, it appears that the landscape is shifting but at a rate that we cannot feel.
So far this year, four new channels have gone on air. More than 10 are planning to begin working later in 2013. How did we get here and where are we headed?
Decade of growth
You can measure the growth in media by the height of an anchor’s backcombed bouffant. For the first time since 1964, when Pakistan Television (PTV) was launched, private television channels were granted licences to broadcast news and current affairs in 2002. That opened the floodgates.
Between 2002 and 2005, the number of satellite and cable channels tripled. Advertising spending on them increased 17 fold (from Rs200 million to Rs3.5 billion).
Suddenly there was no revolution except television. Between 2002 and 2012, television viewership went from 40m to 124m.
Since 2008, the economy has been in a slump. Advertising has shrunk too. That did not, however, stop new channels from opening. Right now, there are over a 100 out of the 122 licences granted by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), according to industry sources. What is more, another 40 to 50 applications have been made, said an official at Pemra on condition of anonymity, since no one besides the Pemra chief is authorised to speak to the media. To be certain, all of these applications have been made by private investors, but what are they thinking, and why are they investing?
One word: Influence
For most media conglomerates in Pakistan, having a television channel is not an end in itself. Few are dependent on it for their bread and butter, and they largely use it as a way to plug into influence and clout. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that most media conglomerates are owned by political families or large business owners with diversified interests.
“News channels are almost like a private militia, maintained for protecting political clout, or other businesses,” said the owner of a major television network, on condition of anonymity. “We are seeing many investments in news channels for this reason.”
Another industry expert, who ran one channel and now serves as a consultant to media groups, seconded this opinion. “Media outlets not only give you easy access to the corridors of power, but also indirect benefits from other ministries where their applications for other businesses are pending,” he said. Channels are also launched for money laundering and diversion purposes, he added.
Funding the clout
None of this comes cheap though. “When people approach me for starting a news channel I give them a feasibility of Rs1.5b for the launch, Rs4b to run it for three years since it very difficult to break even before four to five years,” said the consultant. This figure of around one billion rupees to get a decent-sized channel up and running was corroborated by the media group owner. That’s just the first bitter pill.
Then come the other costs – licence and annual payments to Pemra, satellite transmission, contributor feeds, DSNG vans and other systems to cover and broadcast news live, bureaus in at least the top ten cities. But for any news channel the biggest bill comes in the shape of salaries.
According to an industry insider, one top Punjab-based channel needs to pay salaries in the Rs60m range. A channel headquartered in Karachi (off II Chundrigar Road) pays its staff a little over Rs30m. It shells out thrice that amount to operate.
“The cost of running a news channel is pretty steep nowadays because of the enormous salaries that top anchors demand,” said the media consultant. “All of them get more than Rs1.5 million.”
Entertainment channels are cheaper though and their major cost is the ‘software,’ or the content. “[Their] capital expenditure is minimal, and so are operational costs since they can get their software on 90-day credit,” the consultant said.
While a top-tier channel would earlier spend roughly Rs100m a month on content, the arrival of foreign, dubbed plays has brought the bill down drastically. That explains why media groups have expanded to include entertainment channels and why there has been a scramble for Turkish dubbed plays, but that has yet to translate into profits. Why? Since all channels are available free on cable, there is only one source of revenue: advertising.
Unfortunately, that pie has not kept up with the new channels. “On the face of it, advertising is growing 20% per year but the number of channels is increasing even faster,” said the media group owner. There is fierce competition and almost all news channels are being subsidised by other businesses, he said, adding that more than 90% of news channels are running in the red.
The technological brick wall
Paying for it all is not the only concern for big media groups. The entire industry has hit a technological brick wall: the analog cable system that only allows a maximum of 85 channels to be transmitted via cable operators. As a result, channels are now fighting for a spot on your remote control.
Fed-up cable operators asked Pemra to stop issuing new television channel licences in 2010, said the chairman of the Cable Operators Association of Pakistan, Khalid Arain.
But given that this was not the solution, Pemra gave cable operators a 2014 deadline to switch to digital systems.
That switch would cost cable operators anywhere between Rs8m for a Chinese system or Rs35m for American equipment. But they won’t be the only ones paying. Customers will have to buy a set top box that costs roughly $45 without tax. For Arain, that is precisely the barrier to a technological switch in a country where people pay between Rs200 to Rs1,200 for a monthly cable subscription.
“The government should consider subsidising the set top box or waiving the tax so it becomes more affordable,” Arain argued.
The box will mean more room for more channels and more ways for media companies to earn. “The digital television landscape, that allows more than 100 channels, would make it possible to make money on pay-per-view TV, or subscriptions,” said the media group owner.
Arain pointed to a growing appetite for digital cable services. A few companies are providing it to roughly 5,000 consumers in Karachi. But what is surprising and promising, is that Sukkur has 2,500 to 3,000 digital cable service consumers, he said.
New players on the block
Even though no new licences are being handed out, three channels – PTV World, Capital TV and Ab Tak – started transmission this year and more are in the pipeline. A Pemra official clarified that these were licences either issued on court orders or were old ones renewed upon a change of management. What prompted them to start?
“There is never a good or a bad time to launch a channel,” said Nasir Baig Chughtai, who is the CEO and director of News and Current Affairs for Ab Tak.
“We have hired and trained a young and vibrant team to give news a youthful and fresh perspective. We are focusing on the copy and the story,” he added.
Fahd Husain, who is the CEO and director for News and Current Affairs for Capital TV, also believes there was “definitely space to launch a channel.”
“Almost all news channels are doing the same thing – they lack variety,” he said. “Capital TV will be different in terms of news presentation, format and news anchoring. Our philosophy is that we will go back to journalistic basics. We want to end sensationalism and reenactments and stop the race to the gutter. I want to go back to the very roots of a news channel.”
State-funded PTV World, however, hopes to bridge the gap of an English news channel in the country after Dawn News switched to Urdu and Express 24/7 pulled out.
“After the closure of two TV channels in the private sector due to a lack of advertising revenues, there was a vacuum in terms of an English-language channel that would cater to the demand of the international community present in Pakistan, and the Pakistani diaspora for a news source other than the English language newspapers,” explained Asmatullah Niazi, who is Controller Reporting for PTV World. This channel would be broadcast in 62 countries wherever the footprint of the AsiaSat 3S satellite is available.
Apparently there was nothing odd about launching three news channels back to back. According to the media consultant, the most preferable time to launch a news channel is in election season, when viewers largely shift from entertainment to news. Geo TV was launched in Pakistan in August 2002, two months before the general elections. The channel hit the airwaves in the US and UK at the time of their elections as well.
PTV World, meanwhile, gives the government a way to not just communicate the country’s official stance with foreign diplomats and governments in an election year, but also beyond that in 2014 as US-led forces withdraw from Afghanistan.
“Pakistan’s point of view must reach foreign governments and their diplomats based in Islamabad. There is no English news channel they can watch and listen,” the consultant added.
What lies ahead?
While each of the three new entrants believe they will not only be able to survive but also transform the media landscape, the existing players are less than enthusiastic.
“The news media business is already over saturated,” said the owner of a news channel. “We are headed for a period of continued launches, because people who have made money are entering the media, but also a period when many players are pushed to the brink to cut costs or exit or be unable to compete,” he said. Some media conglomerates, however, continue to buck the trend. Geo, a subsidiary of Independent Media Corporation, has recently launched another news channel, Geo Tez, and an entertainment channel, Geo Kahani. Hum Network Limited, the only publicly listed media group, has also launched a third channel, Hum2.
“Somewhere in distant future we should see business closures and some form of consolidation. But I have no idea when this will happen,” said an industry insider. Until then, it seems, the bubble will continue to grow, and float.
PTV Black & White: The first official television station starts transmission broadcast.
PTV Colour: Colour transmission begins
PTN (Peoples Television Network)/ STN (Shalimar Television Network): First semi-government TV network launched. Later renamed STN.
NTM (Network Television Marketing): a joint venture between STN and a private company. Said to be the first private TV channel of Pakistan. Was not allowed to transmit news and current affairs programming.
PTV 2: The full-scale satellite broadcasting service starts. Renamed PTV World in 1998.
NTM goes off the air due to financial losses.
PTV and STN launch Channel-3 as a joint venture.
The government opens up the media industry by allowing private TV channels to operate openly even to telecast their own news and current affairs content.
Geo TV launches on October 1.
Business Plus launched on July 2004. It is owned by the Total Media Solutions Company.
Dubai based news channel, ARY News launched on September 26, 2004. It is a part of the ARY Digital Network, which is a subsidiary of ARY Group.
Sindh Television (STV), Sindhi language news channel owned by Dolphin Media House, launches in October 2004.
Channel-3 goes off the air.
AAJ News launched by the Business Recorder Group.
Geo News, owned and operated by Jang Group, starts broadcasting in November.
CNBC Pakistan starts broadcasting. It is owned by Vision Network Television Limited.
PTV renamed PTV Home and PTV World renamed PTV News.
Dawn News launches as Pakistan’s first 24-hour English news channel.
Khyber News launches with programmes only in Pashto and English.
Royal News, a Lahore-based Pakistani news channel, owned and controlled by Royal Group and Leads Group, starts broadcasting in August.
News ONE, owned by The Interflow Group of Companies, starts operations.
SAMAA TV, owned by Jaag Broadcasting Systems (Pvt.) Limited, is launched.
Express News, an Urdu language news channel is launched on January 1, 2008. It is owned by the Lakson Group.
Waqt News, owned by Nawa-i-Waqt media group, is launched.
GEO English was an English-language television channel owned by the Geo TV network. The channel was shut down in October 2008 before even making it to the airwaves.
Dunya News, an Urdu news and current affairs television channel is launched.
Express 24/7 launched on February 5, 2009. It is the second 24-hour English news in the country. The channel was owned by the Lakson Group.
Dawn News converts to an Urdu news channel on May 15, 2010 after suffering a financial crisis.
Express 24/7 shuts down on November 28, 2011 after suffering financial problems.
Hero TV is launched by the Lakson Group.
Pakistan Television’s English-language channel, PTV World, is launched on January 29, 2013. It is currently the only English language news channel in the country.
Capital TV launches on April 10, 2013.
Ab Tak TV, owned by Urdu1 starts broadcasting on April 18, 2013.
The list of television channels is a long one. Some names, other than those listed in the timeline, include Awaz, Apna News, Roohi, Sachal, Punjab TV, Aruj TV, Vibe, Indus News, Metro One, City42, KTN, Dharti, Wasib, Roshni, TV Today. In the pipeline are said to be BOL TV, Dais News, Pearl News, Herald News, Al Jazeera Urdu News Channel, BBC Urdu, Jinnah TV, SANA News Channel, and News+.
Note: This is not a comprehensive list.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 5th, 2013.
Like Express Tribune Magazine on Facebook to stay informed and join the conversation.