Airwaves transporting an agenda of connectedness throughout Southasia, right into homes across the region – what a concept! With equitable representation of news, culture, public opinion, debate and even entertainment, what is not to like? The difficulty, of course, is that such a project faces restrictions imposed by regulations (or lack thereof), market forces, and the now-established culture of television as a primarily commercial entertainment medium. Facts, however, have never precluded the dreamers.
The conceptualisation of a Southasian public service channel must start with the questions: What is the overall philosophy of a public service channel? Who would operate it? Who is it for? What is its programming model? What is the best means to reach the target audience? What will be the primary language of operation? How will it gain acceptance in the varied socio-political landscape and national agendas of Southasia? Where are the revenue streams for the establishment and sustenance of such an ‘out-of-the-box’ type of model?
The very proposition of a regional public service channel goes against the nature of today’s television marketplace. The commonly accepted values of public good, education, accountability, good taste and so on have been largely eroded by the unbridled growth of commercial TV, as delivered by such satellite giants as Star and Zee, which do not have standards of public service imposed on them. Even while stations like NDTV have succeeded in maintaining high journalistic values within India, they have fallen short of developing a voice for Southasia. Television advertisers have, without exception, gravitated towards the vast market potential of India, while marginalising voices from everywhere else in the region.
The reality is that Southasia is host to a vibrant non-governmental culture with a predisposition towards the articulation of a social voice. The ground would thus seem to be fertile for public television. So far, however, the media output of the non-governmental sector has mostly been in the form of ‘alternative’ voices – sporadic documentaries, for instance. Such output rarely finds broadcast opportunities on either government or commercial channels.
The NGO sector possesses the links and networks throughout Southasia to become a prime mover in the effort to develop a regional public service channel. However, to develop a recognisable voice in an already raucous marketplace, it will be necessary to develop working partnerships with governments, corporations and professional media organisations.
One way to promote public sector television would be, first, to promote an autonomous Southasia-wide institution for training and engaging with the best practices of the broadcast media. In other words, we need a media education institution comparable to a teaching hospital, from which fully qualified electronic media professionals can graduate and begin to engage with the world. Such an educational institution could begin by having an online presence, where faculty and students present samples of work, eventually to a larger audience. A comparable model that seeks a democratic voice through online programming of potential TV programmes can be found with Current TV (www.current.tv), a US project led by former vice president Al Gore. Such a scalable model could grow into a thriving channel over time.
Admittedly, starting with a media college could deliver a public service channel overnight. What this model would promise, however, would be a new generation of media professionals. Such a group could play a key role in redirecting the power within television circles, so that there is adequate attention paid not only to the public’s wants, but also to its needs. If the recruitment of both faculty and students at the proposed institution was truly representative of Southasian regions, the programming would be bound to represent the same diversity. It is conceivable that in the foreseeable future, the dispersion of students (as new professionals) throughout the region would create a decentralised model of reporting and storytelling that could become the channel’s hallmark.
Rather than trying to follow an all-news-all-the-time model, the proposed channel should build a reputation for quality programming, focused on representing both the diversity and common interests of Southasia. While news, public affairs and documentaries should form the core of regular programming on the channel, heretofore underserved areas – such as culture, heritage, or quality children’s programming – provide opportunities ripe for exploitation.
Over the past four decades, the ideal of television as an educational medium has been systematically abandoned. This process has included state-run operations like Doordarshan in India and PTV in Pakistan, which have invested heavily in ‘production values’ to maintain viewership and revenues amidst a flood of private sector competition. In essence, government channels have either outright abandoned public service models, or have simply not allowed these models to evolve. As such, now is the time to develop a truly public-spirited channel, outside of officialdom.
The audience for a potential public interest channel in Southasia is somewhat self-evident. Although their mother-tongues are as diverse as the region itself, the common language throughout the satellite footprint is English. The primary audience, then, is cosmopolitan college graduates who are active media consumers, monitor the leading English-language newspapers, and regularly watching a variety of regional, national and international TV news. This is a segment with purchasing power, and with a potential to be attracted by programming that has real informational content.
Although this primary audience resides in Southasia, the channel would also have a considerable audience elsewhere. A truly representative Southasian channel would draw global attention from the day of its launching. It would also have a following among the Southasian diaspora in the West, the Gulf, in Europe and Southeast Asia.
One mistake that this channel cannot make is to represent itself as an ‘alternative voice’. Thus, the programmes must hit the airwaves as technologically, aesthetically, journalistically and professionally first-class. The channel must exercise the utmost care in recruiting the best people and deploy leading-edge technology. All in all, the public interest channel must project itself successfully as a ‘new reality’ that speaks to the future of Southasia as one region with differentiated countries and societies. Journalistically, the channel should characterise itself as an intrepid ‘presenter of all sides’, rather than as a ‘revealer of truths’. The channel must be viewed as a forum for expression – not as a conduit for opinions.
No doubt this would be an expensive project, with a gestation period of five to eight years. Although the initial investment would be high, the audience profile and easy portability of developed programming would allow the channel to expect widespread subscription numbers. For this reason, the project should be developed as an advertisement-free, for-pay channel; advertisers would otherwise tend to influence programming in order to favour the largest audience segments, by country or by income level. Experience tells us that support by either governments or advertisers also tends to result in static, non-dynamic programming. The practical challenge, then, is to devise a regionwide, independent voice. This can best be achieved through a funding strategy wherein representation on the governing board truly represents the region’s diversity and diverse needs and wants.
The internet is becoming an increasingly viable channel for the delivery of audio-visual content. In upcoming years, the hope is that it will present easy and cost-efficient ways to establish an evolved culture of free multimedia expression for regional consumption. As technological advances make this feasible, committed Southasian media professionals should be there to take advantage of its opportunities.
View from the ground
During the recently held Film South Asia ’05 documentary festival in Kathmandu, Pakistani journalist and filmmaker Munizae Jahangir offered a few key points on the idea of a Southasian public service television station:
“An objective Southasian television channel would be vital in bringing together the region and helping us to understand one another. Although no particular format should be enforced, specific airtime should be set aside for new filmmakers and producers, particularly for those with new innovations. Experimental styles should be encouraged and, once the broadcast is established, funding should be offered for new genres. The channel would need to run regular, uncensored news bulletins. Talk shows and debates should bring together a wide spectrum of Southasian journalists, politicians and academics. Particularly useful would be a forum where Southasian politicians face questions from a wide Southasian audience, comprised of all regional nationalities.”