Pakistani Media and the Battle for Television Viewers

By: Ali Kabir Shah - Partner at Ali & Associates

Sensory MarksMedia Law InternationalThere is an image embedded in the minds of Pakistanis of different generations that, perhaps more than anything else, symbolises a profound political and administrative change. The image, repeated at different moments in history, shows soldiers climbing over the gates of the state-owned Pakistani Television Network (PTV) and seizing control.  

Invariably, the channel would switch to an emergency broadcast screen and a few hours later an announcement would be made by the Chief of the Armed Forces that the constitution had been temporarily abrogated and Martial Law had been enforced.

The last such image dates to 12 October 1999 when General Pervez Musharraf overthrew the government of the then, and interestingly the current, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Televisions across Pakistan went silent as government owned broadcasters showed static. Institutional memory took over and everyone knew that change was in the air – such is the power of a silenced television set.

Curiously, a little less than a decade later it would be the cacophony of opposition heard on over two dozen television news channels that would ultimately result in General Musharraf’s ouster from power.

The power of the moving image and its ability to transform public perception had always been known and understood, hence the reason for its tight control. Each successive government prior to General Musharraf’s regime, civilian or military, had a keen grasp on how to control the television media – they would do so by simply not liberalising the regulatory framework and allowing private television channels to exist.

The tightly controlled state television channel(s) would thus, when it came to political and state affairs, be largely a propaganda tool, especially when it came to matters of great importance. This is not to say that there was no dissention, there was, but it was usually coached in humor or satire, or be subversive in nature. In another quirk the state television would not just reflect the political views of the current rulers but also be a conduit through which they would display their reflection of the ‘Pakistani identity,’ a tenuous affair for a nation that has continued to struggle to define itself. A change of government or cessation of military rule would result in a rapid shift in the acceptable ‘moral’ norms.

In contrast to the tightly controlled electronic media, the privately owned print media had greater freedoms to publish dissent and challenge the political powers. The battle for media freedom would be bought in this domain. Print journalists, editors and publishers were routinely harassed, even arrested, especially during military rule (which covers over three decades since inception of the country in 1947).

It is to General Musharraf’s immense credit that he chose to liberalise the media and allow private television channels to be established and perhaps a reflection of his generally liberal character. Amongst the first in line were the old newspaper magnates who quickly seized on the opportunity to transform themselves into media barons.

It cannot be overlooked that the democratic government’s performance preceding the military takeover in 1999 was perceived as being disastrous by large sections of the Pakistani public, which included a section of the Pakistani press, and who supported General Musharraf following the takeover.

There may therefore have been a feeling that a private and independent electronic media would be generally supportive of the new rulers. And that initially certainly was the case. But invariably, the cat was well and truly out of the bag.

The first channels that would appear would be general purpose television channels with a sharp focus on news and current affairs. It quickly became apparent that the public had a great appetite for news, especially live news coverage and political debates. From the channel owner perspectives, this played perfectly as this was far more inexpensive than creating new entertainment content or seeking media rights for international content. A studio, presenter and a readily available panel of unpaid analysts, journalists and politicians is all you needed. The viewers would come, and soon so to the all-important advertisers.

Business boomed. The livelier the debate, the grislier the live coverage, the more the chances of success. Anchors became experts, and soon household names. The newly formed “television networks,” newly minted, focused some of their energies and resources on new sectors and took chances in setting up specialised channels for music, children’s programming, etc, and even entered licensing deals with international media companies, launching the likes of Fashion TV Pakistan, MTV Pakistan, VH1, etc.

But the money remained in news and political coverage and there was a crucial and fundamental error that was made, which would exacerbate the situation. Little attention was paid to television distribution and a discordant approach was taken to the issuance of licenses for cable television distributors. Most of them were small players who, in order to penetrate the market, laid analogue systems and charged pittance. The concept of acquiring rights from television owners was never introduced and most channels remained free-to-air.

As competition continued to grow, media networks started off-loading some of their less lucrative and niche channels and started focusing on what worked: news.

The race for ratings took a life of its own and all that mattered was ensuring that ratings were high enough to attract advertisers. New entrants came into the market, overcrowding a narrow area. Anchors and hosts started being poached to draw viewers, and invariably advertisers.

All the while, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) sat back and tried to make sense of what was happening, but without a clear plan on how it would in fact regulate the sector in the best interest of the public. The paucity of leadership, which has been a hallmark of the regulator, and the lack of clear planning since inception, has resulted in an almighty mess.

The PEMRA laws lay down a wide range of rules and regulations for governing the media landscape. These include powers regulating the nature of content that is acceptable for broadcast. As cable penetration grew and entered semi-urban and rural areas, and really began to cover the country, there was a marked shift in the notion of acceptable content. Television became somewhat more conservative, but more importantly, it became evident that these channels had unfettered power to shape public opinion.

The government recoiled and as the political climate turned sour, the liberator of the Pakistani media became its great foe. This first round would be won by the channels and the military government had to go.

Over the past few years a concerted effort has been made by the powers that be (a nexus of political, bureaucratic and military figures loosely referred to as “The Establishment”) to rectify the situation and regain a semblance of control over the media. Lessons have been learnt, confrontation has been replaced by indirect measures. The regulator, PEMRA, has been used to reprimand critical television channels and programmes, anchors have been inducted to project a certain view and shape viewer opinion. The courts have become extremely active as channels fight channels, and public figures attempt to salvage reputations sullied by a media onslaught, legitimate or otherwise.

The battle to control public opinion however has unfortunately and entirely sidestepped the bigger question: Is public interest being protected? This fundamentally is the primary role of the regulator. The regulator, PEMRA and the government brain trust, must realise the wider importance of electronic media to public interest. That it is important for the country to have a better electronic media landscape comprising of more qualitative programing, content and a more diverse range of entertainment and political views.

This will require an entire overhaul of the current distribution network, which is failing the public, channel and content owners. The emergence of over two dozen, at times obnoxious and recalcitrant news channels, at the expense of other categories of channels and programming is a direct result of the mess that is cable distribution. The paucity of options is disastrous for viewers and ultimately for the government as a rich area of commercial growth remains untapped.

There is no easy solution: the cable operators are too many and too disparate, and overhauling of a system serving almost 200 million people can be no easy task. Adding to the difficulty is the degree of local political power retained by many cable operators, which makes disturbing them all the more difficult.

But something needs to be done, and can be done. The clearest example comes from the television distribution digitisation process that has occurred in Pakistan’s immediate neighbor, India. The loud television news channels may still be present but introduction of digital subscription framework has allowed niche channels and general entertainment channels to flourish, which include sports, business and regional language channels. In addition, the content and quality has gotten better, with an increasing number of premium subscription high definition channels.

There is a fascination to the oscillating nature of the Pakistani news media, with revolving political loyalties, uncontrollable television personalities and an almighty battle for ratings. These will never cease, tied as they are to the very fabric of the state. But what can alter is the predominance of television news and introduction of something ‘more,’ a diversity of options feeding a diverse populace.