When I was growing up in suburban Colombo in the 1980s, we had a family friend who worked at the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC). When anyone asked him where he worked, he would simply reply: “I’m in broadcasting.”
That answer was perfectly adequate at the time, when the fully state-owned and government-controlled SLBC was the only domestic broadcaster. The FM radio band was eerily silent, and only die-hard enthusiasts would persist with shortwave crackle to listen to foreign broadcasts like BBC, Voice of America or Radio Veritas from thousands of kilometres away. We also had two state TV channels still learning the ropes.
Today, that kind of answer would mean nothing. Two dozen FM radio channels crowd the airwaves. In the western province, there are 15 free-to-air terrestrial TV channels – and counting.
Most of these are privately owned and commercially operated channels, all started after broadcasting was (partially) liberalised in 1992. They compete fiercely for a share of audience – and advertising revenue. While that can sometimes be a race to the bottom, it’s infinitely better than the bad old days when we had no choice but to tune into ruling party propaganda masquerading as public broadcasting.
The situation is broadly the same in many other countries in the Asia Pacific region. With a few exceptions, the state-owned, government-controlled broadcasters have seen their monopolies end – and as their long-suffering audiences might confirm, not a moment too soon. They now have to compete with younger, more dynamic and decidedly more interesting private channels.
And in every market, former monopolists have seen their audience share shrink, in some cases dramatically. The one-time lords of the airwaves have been reduced to minority players. Many are struggling to make ends meet, and some are kept alive only because governments keep pumping in large volumes of tax-payer funds.
Meanwhile, the eye-balls and advertising revenues have migrated to the privately owned, commercially operated TV stations. They entertain, amuse and sometimes titillate. But they also inform and occasionally educate their audiences.
And yes, many are making money too – and that’s neither illegal nor immoral in market economies.
Alas, the former monopolists haven’t yet stopped crying foul. They allege that the commercial stations are playing by a different set of rules, allowing the latter to play the market and maximise returns. In contrast, the government channels claim to have a ‘public service mandate’ that’s harder to fulfill and not always popular or populist.
Note that I have not used the term ‘public broadcaster’ to describe the government channels – because, whatever their founding documents might say, most of them are not serving the public interest. In developing Asia, which lacks sufficient checks and balances to ensure independence of state broadcasters, the only thing public about such channels is that they are often a drain on public money collected through taxes. Their service and loyalties are entirely to whichever political party, coalition or military dictator in government.
When the divide between governments and the public interest is growing, most ‘public’ channels find themselves on the wrong side. No wonder, then, that discerning views have abandoned them.
Interestingly, old habits and brand loyalty might explain why at least a minority audience still remains for state broadcasters. The state channels have been around for longer, and for years, they were the only show in town. Some of them occupy large swaths of the UHF and VHF spectrum, making their signals easier to catch.
But these advantages would diminish over time. For one thing, young people far outnumber older persons in most parts of developing Asia (almost 62 per cent of the world’s youth – aged between 15 and 24 – are in Asia: that was 716 million in 2005). For another thing, the more dynamic private competition is finding new pathways to reach youthful audiences.
State broadcasters may be venerable to some, but no one thinks of them as ‘cool’. Even the BBC – which is far better shielded from governmental manipulation than its Asian counterparts – has yet to shed its old nickname and image of “Auntie”, originating from its old-fashioned “Auntie knows best” attitude.
In Asia, now home to the world’s largest combined television audience, it’s more a case of grandma knows best. The other day, I asked a young Filipino film-maker and TV journalist about who watches her country’s National Broadcasting Network. “In my family, only grandma watches it,” she replied, adding that the only time others tune in to that channel is to watch lottery results.
This is not an isolated insight. Across Asia, FM radio and commercial TV have captured the markets of the young and young-at-heart.
Nobody grudges grandmas and grandpas being served by their favourite channels. But we have to ask how and why decades of public investments in broadcast infrastructure and institutions are not serving a wider spectrum of the population. Dishing out lottery results and pandering to Narcissistic politicians cannot quite pass as serving the public interest.
Meanwhile, in a welcome trend, the market-leading commercial broadcasters are increasingly turning their massive outreach and influence to serve the public interest. It goes against the conventional wisdom of ivory tower researchers and media activists who cry themselves hoarse accusing commercial broadcasters of reaping profits without returning something to the community. But it’s real.
In market after market, country after country all over the Asia Pacific, privately owned, commercially successful radio and TV channels are championing the public interest. They may not have a UNESCO-articulated grand agenda, but they see it as serving the needs and wants of their loyal audiences.
The services are as diverse as the needs themselves. Some channels are dispensing practical information and advice on all sorts of everyday matters from traffic congestion and vaccination to school admissions and crime prevention. Others have gone further, for example launching national campaigns against narcotic drugs or corruption, and advocating better care for persons living with HIV.
In covering these and other public interest or development issues, commercial channels bring in a healthy dose of creativity, dynamism and innovation. They don’t preach or pontificate. Instead they make it fun, hop and cool to do what we should be doing anyway in our self interest.
See, for example, my Sep 2007 blog post on MTV Exit: Entertainment TV takes on human trafficking
And I don’t mind if some of them laugh all the way to their banks at the end of each financial year. (In reality, many operate on thin margins and few make significant profits.)
A few commercial broadcasters go even further. On a visit to Manila last week, I heard how ABS-CBN – the country’s privately owned, market-leading broadcast group – is doing much for science popularisation and public education. These are done through charitable foundations that deliver public goods through private means.
While all this is happening, the development community seems trapped in a time warp – clinging on to an outdated notion that state broadcasters alone can serve the public interest (if you ask me, they never did). Perhaps out of habit, they keep turning to such channels with their ever-shrinking audiences.
A few weeks ago, a senior official at Sri Lanka’s largest development organisation Sarvodaya told me how hard it was for them to have their development films broadcast. The two state broadcasters had both demanded money for air time.
Strangely, he had not even considered engaging a commercial broadcaster. “After all, we want to be seen our national channels,” he explained.
This Rip Van Winkle attitude doesn’t help anyone, and least of all those communities that development agencies are trying to reach through media-based communication.
As I asked at a recent UNEP-convened meeting in Bangkok: “If in our technical work we are evidence-based, why can’t we be evidence-based in our communication strategies and decisions as well? We must define the priority audiences we want to reach, and find out their media preferences. We need to use independent audience ratings, and not personal perceptions or biases in choosing which stations we work with.”
Thus, if the development community is serious about engaging the broadcast media, they must first awake from their long slumber and quickly update themselves on current realities in Asian broadcasting.
It’s not who owns that decides the public spirited character of a radio or TV station. In today’s complex and nuanced media landscape, it’s the performance and delivery that count.
Aunties without eyeballs can trudge along on government’s crutches. The rest of us have miles to go before we can rest.