The Geography of GEO

A Karachi-based satellite channel which uplinks from Dubai has taken the Pakistani market by storm. Given the sense and sensibility that drives this independent broadcaster, could the rest of Southasia be the next market?

Early morning on 30 January 2005, long before dawn but after the daily newspapers had gone to press, the building that houses the Jang Group of Newspapers in Karachi was attacked by 30 armed gunmen on motorbikes. The building's gatekeepers were beaten up and the first two floors were ransacked. Eyewitnesses later reported that a police van stationed at the street corner was filled with armed policemen who did not stir. Later that morning, a religious group claimed responsibility for the act and explained its motive.

The previous evening, the Pakistani channel GEO TV had aired a discussion on the ultra-sensitive topic of incest on its Agony Aunt programme, Uljhan Suljhan. Considering the subject, the channel had moved the programme out of primetime and its host, Hina Khwaja Biyat, had brought in a 'technical' panel comprised of a doctor, a psychologist, a medical researcher and a sociologist. A victim's letter was read on the air. In it, she wrote that her brother had sexually abused her for six years. Thrice, she had tried to commit suicide but failed. What should she do? The panelists pitched in with their advice, and as the program came to a close, the doctor identified a mutual dependency situation. The incest, the doctor feared, would continue. To prevent further complications in a sensitive situation, she strongly recommended the use of contraception. In one sweep, the programme had dared to discuss two taboos —incest and contraception — on a popular television channel, in a society where social issues tend to be dictated and defined by hard-line, self-proclaimed theologians. Or, they are simply not discussed. By 2:30 am, GEO's offices had been stormed.

When GEO began its transmission in August 2002 as an Urdu television channel, it was not the first independent broadcast to challenge the monopoly of the government's Pakistan Television (PTV). Indus Vision and ARY Digital were both launched in 2001, after General Pervez Musharraf's government declared it open season for private channels. By now, more than 13 independent channels have flooded the market — all of them reaching the Pakistani viewership through cable and satellite networks and accessing less than half of the population that state television reaches. 39 more licenses are soon to be issued, several of them for regional language channels. Moreover, Indian broadcasts are back on cable after having been banned shortly after the Kargil war, providing serious competition to CEO's generally average entertainment programs. Meanwhile, draconian press laws continue to infringe upon media's freedom, impacting the credibility of television news. The rising tide of fundamentalism in the country and the growing political role of Islamists mean even greater media suppression.

And yet, amidst the competition and adversity, GEO's ratings have never stopped in their skyward climb, reflecting the channel's popularity both at home and among the North American and UK immigrant communities. What's the buzz about? CEO's mission and vision aside, several factors have influenced its success. The channel started broadcasting when fast-moving local events were shifting the public's interest away from foreign television stations. The private Indian channels, which had been the Pakistani public's choice of entertainment, had been banned, even though recorded copies of popular shows like Kyonki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi were readily available in music stores. (Even today, Indian news channels like NDTV and Doordharshan are not aired in Pakistan.) It was around this time that Pakistani advertisers began to look at television as a viable medium. For its part, GEO played smart by seeking to reach the mass market by being a decidedly Urdu channel; its star offering was a smartly produced news-on-the-hour format that provided local, national and international news quickly and relatively uncensored. It did not take long for cable and satellite viewers to migrate from the staid state-owned PTV to GEO.

Even with its success, CEO's spread remains stifled by access issues. Only 35 percent of Pakistan is covered by cable and satellite, and the independent television channels are not allowed terrestrial (land-based) broadcasting. According to a Gallup Media report, the 'penetration' of the private channels in cities is estimated at 28 million, or 72 percent of the urban television audience. Outside of the cities, satellite television's reach is barely 27 percent, essentially allowing for a rural PTV monopoly. "Because GEO, INDUS, AAJ and others can only access about 30 percent of the population, they do not have the same target audience as PTV," says Adnan Rehmat, director of Internews, a non-profit outfit that supports open media. But GEO does not seem particularly concerned at the moment, concentrating instead on building its base and credibility while hoping for the day when the larger market will beckon. It is focused for now on the purchasing power of its urban audience, hoping to cash in on the countryside another day. In the meantime, CEO's executives know that they have built an unrivalled reputation for delivering the latest news with smart presentation before anyone else. "I think the government misjudged the power of the cable revolution," says one GEO executive. "Satellite is not a revolution, but cable is."

Any random sampling will show that CEO's strength lies in its news more than anything else. "I watch GEO everyday. Whenever anything happens, their reporters are on the scene right away," says Narayan Lal, 40, a driver by profession in Karachi. Rehmat, the media analyst, agrees: "There is no comparison between GEO and its competitors. A large part of GEO is news- and information-based, and they have an edge because they get news faster using the great infrastructure of Jang and The News". GEO benefits from being housed in the same office block as these popular English and Urdu sister dailies. The Jang is the most widely read newspaper in Pakistan.

CEO's current 24-hour broadcast is a mixture of news, entertainment and infotainment. Uljhan Suljhan, the program that offended some conservatives in the country, is part of the infotainment segment. Even while the news programmes give the channel its cloud and credibility, GEO says the infotainment broadcasts are its main income generators. CEO's success is evident from its revenue charts, where the takings have gone from a mere PKR 20 million by the final quarter of 2002 to PKR 936 million in 2004. By comparison, ARY Digital's 2004 earnings were PKR 456 million, and Indus Television's were PKR 115 million.

Thinking inn Urdu

The Jang Group is a media empire spanning three generations started by Mir Khalil-ur-Rahman (fondly known as MKR) with the Urdu daily Jang in Delhi in the early 1940s. At CEO's helm sits Mir Ibrahim Rahman, the grandson of the magnate. Mir was busy as a Goldman Sachs investment banker in New York before he returned to Karachi in 2001 to assist in the planning and launching of GEO. While the dream of a television channel was born during his grandfather's time, it was Mir's father, Shakil-ur-Rahman, who pursued it relentlessly with the Pakistani government. Mir swears that there is minimal linkage between GEO and the Group's publications, but even he admits in New York tech-speak that there is "a kind of perception synergy".

Jang's offices are housed in a dull, unimpressive grey building on the city's financial thoroughfare, Chundrigar Road. The entrance is on a side road crammed with motorbikes, double-parked cars, and street vendors. Two slim elevators make their ways slowly up and down the building. But GEO TV's two-floor head offices which are reached by two slim elevators are posh. State-of-the-art equipment is everywhere, with latest computer programmes. But the office layout is super-egalitarian: gone are the lavish offices that were guaranteed to senior execs —Mir and Aslam's offices are compact, surrounded by clear glass walls. Access is easy.

Launching the television operation wasn't easy, due to the original decision to start big. GEO had to raise the financial capital for equipment, technology, personnel and training — and they went all the way. Mir hints that the capital came from a mix of resources — "personal, family and third-party". Then, three years ago they brought in BBC specialists to train a pool of 200 soon-to-be reporters, producers and technical staff; the programme lasted four months and cost USD 1.5 million. "I personally interviewed 6,000 people," laughs Imran Aslam, GEO's president, who has played a key role in devising the channel's programming strategy. "It was the largest manhunt and womanhunt in the country. We were looking for real balance. At the end of the training, we had a picnic for the graduates out by the beach. We'd hired buses from Avari Towers," recalls Aslam, referring to a fancy Karachi hotel near the city's elite neighborhoods of Defense and Clifton. "When we returned to Avari in the evening, there were hardly four people left. Everyone else had been dropped off along the way. That's when we knew we were on board." What GEO wanted was diversity of reporters and producers — people who could tell the country's many untold stories from a non-elitist point-of-view. Having dropped off the majority of the handpicked team before the bus neared the city's elite enclaves, Aslam felt optimistic that they had accomplished that goal.

Fair representation has been key to CEO's success and it was ultra-important to CEO's mission as it got started. All along, it was to be an Urdu-language channel. Remembers Mir, "Even when we hired people, one question we asked was, 'Do you think in Urdu?'" He adds, "At one period, we became almost fascist about our local ideology and didn't hire anyone from Clifton or Defense for one and a half years." GEO's head office is filled with people of all persuasions, he says. "We have liberals, we have conservatives, we have socialists, we have old people and young people, people from north Karachi and south Karachi. The list goes on."

That diversity is meant to achieve 'balance', as far as possible, in order to reflect the national society, and to provide news, entertainment and infotainment that are relevant to the broad-based Pakistani viewership. But even when all the equipment was purchased and the training was completed, the real hurdle was transmitting newscasts without government intervention. GEO followed ARY Digital's route and setup studio headquarters in Dubai. Seven of its anchors are stationed there, along with a staff of 40 people. Operating out of Dubai's Media City, GEO manages to avoid the complicated and messy business of the Pakistani government's telecast regulations.

"Except for business and sports, all of our anchors are sitting in Dubai," explains Aslam, who was intimately involved with planning GEO long before it went on air. The lanky, wiry, chain-smoking former editor of Jang's English daily, The News, is well known in Pakistan for his special brand of theatrical political satire that targets everyone, including the General. Aslam says that Dubai has some obvious advantages. Studio facilities are better, and there is spiffier technology and a sharper technical staff. But the drawback is that all live transmissions have to be aired via Dubai. This means that rather than broadcasting live images, GEO's news has to substitute a still photograph of the concerned reporter and an audio recording. The only other option is to get specific permission from the government each time – permission that the government is not always willing to give.

It helps that Dubai's Media City is the allegedly pro-Western Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum's pet project, says Mir. Back home, the field has been opened up, but remains under the wary gaze of eagle-eyed authorities in Islamabad.

PEMBRA and the public

GEO and other channels are taking advantage of the possibilities offered by the Dubai satellite uplink, but it is not by choice. Even without uplinking from national territory – which is not allowed – there are enough challenges created by the state for any information media, including television. Take, for instance, the October 2002 Freedom of Information Act, which provided journalists with the largely unfettered freedom to report outside the sphere of national security matters. By 31 August the following year, three draconian press laws had been passed to undermine the Act. One of these is a loosely worded defamation law, which is deliberately fuzzy on what the government thinks qualifies as 'defamation'. In some places, the definition refers to material that would offend "friendly countries", while elsewhere there is reference to "decency" and other similarly hazy notions. "That's the standard position in Pakistan – be vague," notes Internews' Adnan Rehmat dryly.

Lately, a public brouhaha has arisen regarding proposed amendments to the defamation law. Punishment would be made more severe; fines would increase; and authorities could more easily invoke the law and slap journalists with penalties. The changes have been approved by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMBRA) ¬established in January 2002 to license privately owned radio and television channels – and are soon to be promulgated into law. "The implications of all this is severe for electronic media," warns Rehmat. "It means seizure of equipment at any point."

The government has recently banned several publications, accusing them of inciting hate. Perhaps because of the hubbub this would created, none of the broadcast channels have been either closed down or severely threatened, but the channels do receive strings of official objections to content. The bigger danger, of course, is the culture of self-censorship that the government's attitude has developed. Television channels require heavy investment, and this builds timidity due to fear of repercussions. "We all have it," admits Mir, referring to self-censorship.

But GEO does try to fight its own demons, and does it quite successfully. Take, for example, Hum Sab Umeed Say Hain, a humour programme that caricatures political personalities, social bigwigs and other influential people. That show has not shied away from tackling a Who's Who of Pakistan's present setup. Even an imitation of Gen. Pervez Musharraf made an appearance on a live telecast, wagging his finger and assuring the nation how much taraqi (progress) Pakistan has made. Recently, GEO asked its viewers, 'Is Pakistan ready for this kind of political satire?' The response, hardly cross-spectrum but still indicative, was a 92 percent vote in the affirmative.

GEO is also known for innovative programmes that maintain viewer interest week after week, even without the standard tearjerker melodrama format.

Take the 13-episode reality show called George ka Pakistan, which followed a burly Englishman navigating his way through the country with the objective of obtaining authentic Pakistan credibility. In the final episode, it was Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz who welcomed George into the "Pakistani brotherhood", but not before the audience overwhelmingly voted positively for him.

But there is also much concern relating to the Islamist influence across parts of Pakistan. When it came to airing the discussion programme on incest on 29 January, both Mir and Aslam say forthrightly that they did everything possible to publicise the importance of the topic as a burning social issue. "By the way," adds Mir, "a recent World Health Organization report states that 12 percent of Pakistani children are abused." The decision was taken to air the programme — albeit outside the regular primetime slot at 9:30 pm — after enough letters had come in from around the country identifying incest as a significant issue. Despite the attack that followed, GEO's managers claim they are not deterred. It was not the first time they had aired shows on socially sensitive — and even volatile — subjects, including homosexuality. They plan to take it all in stride.

Given such an editorial outlook, one may wonder why there have not been more physical attacks on the channel from ultra-conservative elements. One reason may be the unique philosophy that GEO developed to address the needs of the Islamist segment of its viewership. The mullahs have a point of view, says GEO, and that means giving the clerics a fair share of on-air time. And indeed, the mullahs do come. A show on GEO that is watched regularly is Aalim Online (the term translates as 'scholars'), whose host, Aamer Liaquat, a member of the National Assembly and a renowned national debater, facilitates discussions on Quranic scriptures between a Sunni and a Shia scholar. This is a unique programme making full use of the possibilities offered by an electronic mass media to reach across sectarian divides, particularly in a country where Sunni-Shia differences have led a surfeit of violence over the years. Parsi, Christian, and Hindu priests have also been on the show.

Much of GEO's success can be attributed to its somewhat paradoxical vision. Like any commercial media enterprise, it caters to audience demand; yet somehow, it also manages to challenge, and sometimes rattle, its audience as well. The channel's engineers like Aslam have always encouraged critical thinking, and in some ways — despite the hard talk of its military government — Pakistan's broadcast media does not seem any less open than the so-called free media in the United States.

Every now and then, having aired a sensitive discussion or reported controversial news, GEO anticipates a coded phone call or a veiled threat. The movers and shakers at GEO, however, seem more than willing to ride out the storm. A general view in media circles here is that there is freedom of speech under the present dispensation in Islamabad, and there is enough flexibility in society to bring important issues to the fore, including onto the television screen. The real larger question is whether there is freedom after speech. GEO's prime visionary, Mir says the channel owes a great deal to Gen. Musharraf, who he deems a man of progressive bent. That is not to say, certainly, that there aren't remaining challenges. "In my grandfather's days, Jang printed blank columns to make their point against state censorship. The Generals would be sitting inside our offices. All that has changed. It's like chalk and cheese between then and now."

GEO in India?

Mir Shakil-ur-Rahman of GEO has said that his vision for his channel is not restricted to Pakistan, and that "Southasia is GEO's canvas". The tantalising goal, of course, is to reach the vast Indian viewership and take a bite out of that humongous advertising pie. There should not be insurmountable hurdles for an independent Pakistani channel to beam down on India, just as the reverse is the case. In the past, one major problem with reaching an Indian audience has been that Pakistani channels have been limited to the government's PTV. Additionally, cable operators in India have been reluctant to present Pakistani channels on their menus — a legacy of the heightened tensions of the recent past, including the Kargil War of 1999. However, if Pakistani television developed good entertainment programmes, such as ones based on the much-appreciated docudramas of the past, the development of a cross-border market would be a certainty. For one thing, the Urdu language would carry across the India as well.

In fact, GEO has made some such gestures by bringing Indian celebrities onto its sets in Dubai. Says Adnan Rehmat of Internews, "GEO has funded serials that have Indian actors in them, and they've shown Indian movie and music shows as well." Indian stars are regularly interviewed on the talk show Take One, hosted by Fakhr-e-Alam, the actor, singer and now television anchor. Saif Ali Khan, Manisha Koirala and Nana Patekar are some of the Bombay celebrities that have also made appearances. While these Indian stars are presented due to their strong following in Pakistan, the day may not be far off when GEO or another Pakistani channel makes the breakthrough into India itself with good entertainment.

"We haven't entered the Indian market yet," says Aslam, who admits that India is in the cards. "We're waiting for the right time." Indeed, the channel is yet to launch officially in India, though those with dish antennae can already access the network's programming from anywhere under its satellite footprint. Some Pakistani media-watchers believe that GEO could give the Indian satellite channels a run for their money if it spruced up its entertainment programming.

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