News channels — power or profit?
There is no concept of an influential editorial board in any news channel in Pakistan, and the policy decision rests with the owner
In the past decade or so the media landscape of Pakistan has changed dramatically. The staggering progression from being dominated by the one and only state media to over 100 privately owned TV channels leads us to believe that televised media industry is a lucrative one. However, if this lucrative nature of the media market is to be probed, it may not appear as promising as observed on the outset. The launching of new channels at such a consistent pace is no less than an impressive feat, as the induction of this business has always proved to be an expensive pursuit in this country.
Developing a successful mainstream news channel business does not only require commitments to high capital costs, but also extremely high running expenditures. Some of the most expensive components of a channel’s monthly costs come in the form of human resource (e.g. hiring well known anchors) coupled with news-gathering costs. The consistent influx of channels has saturated the electronic media market for the revenue stream, and to obtain effective human resource, creative teams and professionals to run it are becoming scarce.
This compels us to question the new investor’s mindset when assessing the economic viability of endorsing such high tempo projects. The modern approach appears as an amalgamation o f the “old” Pakistani media (with a reputation of being owned by political interests that push an agenda), and a viable business that is marginally professionalised and infused with some editorial standards. Both moves amplify the recent drumbeat of wealthy people taking ownership stakes in Pakistan’s media industry. Interest in investing in media industry has become a common trend amongst wealthy businessman. However, the question is: do these new prospective investors have the required level of professional sophistication?
Sophistication for new investors is subjective, tailored to meet their self-determined standards. This is problematic because it leads to conflict in handling of affairs, and lack of knowledge coupled with financial strength results in an infrastructure with hollow professionalism, thus compromising the quality of media industry. Unplanned launching techniques followed by financial suffocation is a common hitch that can only be resolved if a professional connect exists that understands the market and speaks their language, thus leading to a mechanism of
Ratings are the prevailing currency in the market; media houses are ruthless in terms of business placements in case the desired ratings are not delivered. This reality check is too cruel to digest for the new investor who relies more on expensive infrastructure, highly paid talent and anchors to guarantee the success of their channel. They fail to understand that big names and technological advancement along with expensive logistics are not sufficient to ensure high ratings. Instead, the key to success is to build a brand. A strong brand plays a pivotal role in complementing these components. Brand is a phenomenon that is not built overnight and demands investment, right communication, credibility and delivery of the promise to the audience through a professional mechanism. One strong anchor and an equally strong or same content will give different results on different screens. Brand loyalty among viewers is of prime importance, and it decides which way the viewership
When we talk about brands in media, we cannot ignore BOL. It was perhaps one of the fastest growing brands before its launch. BOL administration made a huge and unparalleled prelaunch investment for the development of their brand. The brand presence and communication, before the launch of the channel, were second to none. It created a big stir in the media market, and in the public at large. BOL shook the market with their mindboggling pay packages to new starters, junior/senior executives and big media personalities. On average BOL proposed a 300-400 percent increase in salaries than any other media house in the country. BOL’s strategy was to get the best resources and wipe clean the ranks of rival channels.
BOL raised the bar for human resources, appreciation of talent and news gathering infrastructure to a level where it became almost impossible for the competition to keep up. While their business model was difficult to comprehend, and for a few it was not making business sense at all, they succeeded in sweeping the market and created panic among competition. Competitors were also not ready to concede a large chunk of advertising rights to a new player. Therefore, BOL’s unprecedented approach was not viewed practical as per the dynamics of the Pakistan media market.
The unlimited capacity to spend on its brand in the pre and post launch stage reinforces the question of how such business models are financially viable. The subsequent events that led to the closure of the parent company — which funded the upcoming channel — may have answered this question. It is also argued that BOL would have survived had it not delayed the launch. However, BOL the brand is still alive though the television channel’s launch is now in doldrums.
Despite the high cost of running a channel with no or marginal return on investment, why are established businessmen adamant to invest in Pakistan’s broadcast industry, especially news? Some believe it provides the owner with a sense of power and glamour since media can be very influential. On the one hand, there are channels that have survived the test of time (especially news channels as they have branched out into other genres as well). And then there are some who have been forced to shut down since their economic suffering had reached the brink of its threshold. Such is the paradox of Pakistani media; though businesses lose torrential finances, the owner is unwilling to let go of the venture.
The influential nature of news channels has put media at the centre of engineering public opinion, and thus have become major stakeholders in the formation/deformation of government. Some of the leading media houses take respective positions for or against government as per their editorial policies. The final decision, however, lies with the owner to decide whether to air content — irrespective of what the public wants or needs to hear — and continue with his policies. There may be a complete disregard of popular opinion of the general public since it conflicts with the policies adopted by the channel. There is no concept of an influential editorial board in any news channel in Pakistan, and the policy decision rests with the owner. The senior anchors, however, have their say, most of the time, and they are independent in their content and opinions. However, a feedback session is done to engage the senior anchor if his/her opinions and content of the programme clashes with the editorial policy of the channel. It is interesting to see that channels are taking a firm position on certain issues as per their editorial policy though it might be against the popular stance, but they still do it even at the risk of tinkering with their brand, which might be harmful in the long run. But perhaps it fits in to a larger scheme of things.
The regulator PEMRA needs to be more vigilant with regard to the capacity of the market before allowing more players to come in. Monitoring of funds that are presented at the initial time of obtaining licences for a given business model must be done. Lastly, public opinion should not be tainted by government injected artificial propaganda through advertisements/paid content from government exchequer to defuse political turmoil at the cost of public funds. This is a failed mechanism made by successive governments to influence and harm the credibility of the media industry, and sadly, it misleads the public at large.