Pakistan state TV tries its hand at English broadcasts

The photograph shows the main newsroom of PTV World in Islamabad. The 24-hour state English news channel was inaugurated on January 29th, 2013 by Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari. Photo Courtesy: Omar Khalid Butt

With the slogan ‘Changing Perspectives’ and a goal of presenting Pakistan to the rest of the world as a vibrant, modern Islamic state, state-owned Pakistan Television Network at the end of January launched a 24-hour English-language news channel called PTV World.

Amid the fanfare in the launch, there was no mention that PTV World is the fourth such broadcasting attempt in Pakistan  – or that the previous three, all failed financially.

The earlier failures may not offer much guidance on how well the state’s service will perform, though. Each was an attempt by a private broadcaster to build an advertising base that would support a 24-hour, English-language news channel. Advertising may be irrelevant to PTV World – which relies on state financing to keep it afloat – as long as the government agrees to keep funding it.

“The State TV is not concerned about profit or loss,” said veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. “It wants to do a job even if it means taking losses.”

That “job,” according to Aly Naseer Ahmed, one of PTV World’s senior staff, is to get Pakistan’s point of view out to the world – and to combat stereotypes presented about the country in the West. It’s a goal shared by other state-funded, satellite-delivered English-language news channels started in recent years by Russia, China, France and other countries.

The failures

PTV World may be state sponsored but it has a difficult journey ahead in finding a significant audience, if the previous three English-news efforts are any guide.

The first English-language TV news channel, Dawn News, was launched in 2007 by the owners of Pakistan Herald Publications, whose flagship Dawn newspaper was the country’s first English-language paper.

“The goal of Dawn News was to capture the readers of its newspaper and the niche clientele of Pakistan who have the money in the country,” said Nasir Malick, a longtime journalist who was one of the executive producers of the Dawn News channel.

Dawn News was available as a cable channel within Pakistan, and it was distributed by satellite to Europe and the Middle East. Its programming featured a steady lineup of shows anchored by polished professional journalists. The flagship nightly program Newseye was hosted by Saima Mohsin, known for her hard-hitting interviews. But despite its strong editorial content, Dawn News failed to sell enough advertising to pay its bills; after nearly three years on the air, it dropped the English format and continued broadcasting in Urdu.

While Dawn News English was still on the air, Pakistan’s largest newspaper group sought to launch a competing channel, Geo English. The Jang Group already had an Urdu-language news channel, Geo News. But its ambitions for Geo English were high; none of the editorial staffing was to be shared.

Maria Memon, who worked on plans for a Geo English talk show, said Jang Group did not want to share correspondents between its channels “because English press in the country is relatively freer.” Those hired for Geo English included journalists who had studied abroad. “The staff at Geo English had better ideas, their execution of news packages was superior, and the reporters were also more natural in front of the camera,” said Memon.

Omar Khalid Butt one of the senior anchors of PTV World sitting beside the logo of the channel. Photo Courtesy: Omar Khalid Butt

But the planned launch of Geo English in 2008 was thwarted, when Jang Group came under fire for broadcasts criticizing then-President Pervez Musharraf for ousting the country’s Chief Justice. Musharraf’s government retaliated by refusing to issue a license for Geo English; by the time Jang did receive a license, the company had concluded that a private, English-language news channel could not survive financially in Pakistan.

The third private, English-language channel, Express 24/7, was launched in February 2009 by the Lakson Group. Dawn News was already broadcasting, and Lakson wanted to undercut Geo English by getting on air before it. The channel shared resources with its sister Urdu channel, Express News.

“Express 24/7 was launched in competition with Geo English,” said Nasir Malick, who became executive producer of the new channel after Dawn News English folded. “The channel was launched without any proper thought or planning.”

Despite the rush to air, 24/7 built a reputation for strong reporting on breaking news, and for a program, ‘The Platform’, which was in collaboration with U.S.-funded Voice of America. The Platform brought guests together from Washington and Islamabad, and it brought in an important revenue stream for the channel, with VOA financing.

Express 24/7 was broadcast nationally through cable and via satellite in South Asia and the Middle East. After three years, when its contract with VOA ended, Express 24/7 had not built up enough advertising revenue to sustain itself, and it folded.

Chasing ad dollars

In Pakistan, the primary source of income for private news channels is advertisements, which are sold based on audience ratings for each channel. About 1500 monitors are placed inside homes across Pakistan to measure audience size. But most of the monitors are in Karachi, and critics of the system say there are too few monitors to accurately calculate the viewing habits of Pakistan’s 182 million residents.

Nevertheless, advertisers place ads on news channels based on the ratings recorded by this monitoring system; the higher the rating, the more ads the channel will get. English-language channels are at a great disadvantage because they compete with popular, well-established Urdu channels, in a country where the literacy rate is only 58 percent and many don’t speak English. Journalists say this system was the downfall of the three earlier attempts to establish English-language news services.

That should not affect PTV World, said Syed Talat Hussain, a prominent Pakistani television journalist. Its parent company is subsidized by the 30 rupees a month that Pakistanis pay in their utility bills as a fee to Pakistan Television Corporation.

“Dawn News closed down because of financial reasons. They should have first started an Urdu channel and then an English one,” Hussain said. “Express 24/7 relied too much on money obtained from the contract with Voice of America, so when ‘The Platform’ came to an end, the channel also shut down.”

The earlier channels were also hurt by the fact that they had to compete against foreign English-language broadcasters, whose programs are available in Pakistan, said Hassan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst and visiting professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Political Affairs.

“English language news channels have to cater to the taste of those watching international English news channels in the country,” among them, BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera English, Sky News, Fox News and Bloomberg, said Rizvi.

PTV World faces that same dilemma within Pakistan. The channel also can be seen in 62 countries via satellite. Officials of the company declined to give any details about the costs of the news channel and its global transition, though they confirmed that the government has committed to funding its programs for at least one year.

The funding underwrites 12 programs, including Viewers Digest, a magazine-style show focused on lifestyle, and Perspectives with Faisal Qureshi, an interview program. Pakistan Debate with Sidra Iqbal features experts debating current issues, and other shows focus on education and foreign policy.

As far as the news policy of PTV World is concerned, analysts are divided about how the channel will pan out. “Channels are all about brand recognition. PTV World is part of the PTV family of channels and it cannot be objective,” Hussain said. “In order to be a separate entity, it needs to be rebranded as a completely individual channel.”

But another seasoned journalist Mohammad Malick believes that PTV World will enjoy greater autonomy and will be more liberal than its state-run Urdu counterpart.

“PTV World is a promising channel and a good initiative has been taken in launching it,” he said. “The channel is having a good run, and I have noticed that when I was invited on its shows multiple times, that the government was being blasted left, right and center.”