Imran Khan led PTI government on Tuesday deferred its decision to increase the monthly fee of state broadcaster, Pakistan Television (PTV) license for a week amid a nationwide outcry. However the real question is will any one in Pakistan – government or citizens – benefit from increasing Ptv’s license fee?
Questions Govt needs to ask PTV and itself?
While Pakistani electronic and print media – especially the newspapers – keep on occasionally reporting on PTV, and its financial matters but these reports are patchy and inadequate and citizens, politicians, opposition parties and even govt decision makers do not get a complete picture. May be a few bureaucrats in Islamabad have the real picture but most public, aware citizenry – and even the media – have no real understanding of Ptv’s financial situation and the relationship between its expenditures and its performance.
Yet, this is the real question. Without determining an accurate relationship between Ptv’s ballooning expenditures and its performance no decisions should be taken to increase the license fee and such decisions -taken in a vacuum – will neither serve the govt nor the public.
Let’s examine this one by one. From press reports it appears that PTV’s board of directors has proposed to increase license fee from Rs. 35 to Rs. 100. PTI government had almost faithfully decided to oblige the Ptv board but after facing public backlash, has decided to wait on the proposed policy of increasing monthly fee.
According to the reports, the PTV Board or the babus in the Ministry of Information want fee to hike fee from Rs.35 to Rs.100 because the state broadcaster is facing a short fall of almost Rs. 20 billion annually and the last time the fee was increased was 10 years ago.
Now that govt has hiked PTV license fee by Rs 65 from Rs 35 to Rs 100, which will help state run channel get additional Rs 21 billion, I'm reminded of @ImranKhanPTI's words that in NayaPakistan the conscionable nation would ask about its utilisation. Would PM give an explanation? pic.twitter.com/o8sf4w6TEu
— Baqir Sajjad (@baqirsajjad) July 18, 2020
Real tragedy of Ptv and Ministry of Information?
While PTV always had a license fee but it could not collect more than a paltry sum till Yousaf Baig Mirza, nicknamed YBM, (MD around 2006-7 period) came up with the idea of compulsorily collecting the fee along with the electricity charges. Now the ridiculous situation is that every electricity meter, across the country of 200 million population, is being charged a monthly tv license fee. These may include electric meters on tube wells, industrial units, factories, businesses, shops etc unless they have sought exemption.
But the real tragedy of PTV and the Ministry of Information is that they would not even not even know the number of tv homes in Pakistan which is a basic prerequisite for effective planning and decision making. While private publications like Dawn Group’s Aurora and marketing firms do have estimated figures of tv viewerships but these are widely different – as these are all based upon statistical estimations. And even these figures are seldom discussed when govt decision are made. So PM Imran Khan will be operating in virtual vacuum if his government decides on hiking fee without asking PTV – and Ministry of Information – the difficult questions.
Apparently Ptv, the state-run broadcaster charges a monthly fee of Rs. 35 from electricity consumers, which provides it with billions in fee. When mandatory collection through Electricity bills was introduced in 2007 at that time PTV – according to published information in different places – used to collect around Rs. 3 billion and is now collecting around Rs. 7 billion due to the increase in the number of electricity consumers.
However during the same time period (2007 to 2020) the real viewership of PTV in Pakistan’s urban areas has nose dived to a situation where for all practical purposes its news broadcasts and programming is of no use to any government (whether PTI or PMLN), or Establishment. Though under PEMRA regulations (and Ptv’s innocent conspiracy) PTV channels are by default the first 4-5 on all cable providers yet few, if any watch PTV News in Pakistan’s large cities. So today, PTV can’t even deliver as a state propaganda platform.
Yes! a significant percentage of Pakistan’s rural populations in Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan, KP and outlying frontier areas do watch Ptv; however this is not out of choice but for lack of any meaningful choices. Since rural constituencies are part of almost all electoral districts for National and Provincial Assembly seats so MNA’s and MPAs keep on harping upon the importance of PTV for their local politics but their gossip mills are not a reliable tool for policy making. PM Imran Khan should certainly not rely upon this.
Rural constituencies may help governments win elections, but as PTI and Imran Khan and architects of “dharans” should know fully well that it’s the narrative in the urban population that decides the fate of governments from Musharraf era to this day. It is not without a reason that governments, and state institutions have worked over time to influence the nature and direction of the content produced by these private TV channels like Geo, ARY, Dunya etc. And with the expanding use of handheld, mobile devices across Pakistan’s population (almost 60 million plus are smart devices) the viewership patterns and habits across rural areas may also be changing fast.
Content matters: Can Ptv produce Intelligent content?
In 2007, Pakistan had only 3-4 private tv channels – Geo, ARY, AAJ, Waqt – now there are around 33 24/7 News channels that cater to Pakistan’s urban populations and even large percentage of rural populations near big cities. And TV content produced by these channels and now increasingly by private citizens, entertainers reaches to younger populations through different mechanisms and platforms of digital technology usually referred to as “social media” – like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, and TikTok etc.
So the choice of the viewer depends upon the nature and quality of content produced by the platform. And this is where PTV has no future even if its license fee is raised to Rs. 1000 per month from Rs. 35.
PTI has no new ideas for PTV?
Briefing the media on the federal cabinet’s meeting chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan earlier in the day, Information Minister Shibli Faraz said that the past governments of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) destroyed PTV and overstaffed it with political appointments.
“The plan to overhaul the state-run broadcaster has been approved and the decision to hike the license fee has been deferred till next week,” said the minister, adding that the final decision will be taken after further deliberation.
But the problem with that approach of condemning PMLN and PPP is that like them, PTI has no new ideas to reform Ptv. In the absence of real home work its dependent upon cliched statements about PTV from MNAs and PTV bureaucracy.
PTV management had earlier proposed to increase its revenue by increasing the fee of PTV license maintaining that public broadcasters around the world – like BBC and German broadcasters – are supported by their governments to protect their national narrative and that the nominal amount being charged is not enough to meet the requirements of the institution. But the real question is: Is PTV capable of supporting the national narrative? Is it even capable of understanding what national narrative means? Where this narrative needs to reach? How will this reach and engage the minds? A state broadcaster producing content in vacuum that is unable to engage intelligent minds is only a waste of national resources.
— 92 News HD Plus (@92newschannel) July 21, 2020
Increased PTV costs of doing business
PTV currently is losing around Rs. 20 billion a year or about Rs 1.7 billion per month, which it needs to make up to cover the cost of its operations.
Addressing reporters, Shibli Faraz said that the PTI-led government now required a huge investment in order to rebrand the PTV as the state’s representative and the voice of Pakistan. “So, to fix all the management and technical issues, including outdated cameras and no production work going on, we are forced to come to this decision, rather proposal.”
Given the outdated look that PTV has, due to older cameras, less tech-savvy anchors, newscasters, and technical teams means that it doesn’t attract the kind of advertisements that it would, otherwise, given its wide coverage of the population. Currently, even limited government ads are given to PTV. To improve the quality of viewing the government needs to spend significant sums to upgrade the national broadcaster.
The information minister also stated, “We also cannot pay the pensions because of a large number of pensioners — at least 3,000 — who have yet to be paid pensions.” The proposal by the PTV board also includes the suggestion to increase the superannuation period by two years from 56 to 58 years.
“Now, as far as building and restructuring is concerned, planning has already been completed,” the minister said, adding that nothing could be done without the resources, especially when the issues of pensions, salaries, and new equipment had to be solved.
Board of Directors recommended to increase fee of PTV license
According to media reports, the Board of Directors of the corporation had recommended increasing the license fee as per the financial business plan. The plan recommended increasing the license fee from Rs35 to Rs100 while collecting the same from electricity consumers thorough bills after getting its approval from the federal government. PTV could collect Rs20 billion after increasing PTV license fee.
PTV also pointed out that countries like the UK, France, Germany and Turkey charge a monthly TV license fee to fund BBC, France TV, DW and TRT respectively. The monthly TV license fee charged by these channels is GBP 13 (Rs. 2,567) by BBC; Euros 12 (Rs. 2,100) by France TV; Euros 18 (Rs. 3,150) by DW and 2% of monthly electricity bill by TRT. However, the Pakistan Government charges a monthly TV license fee of Rs 35 only. PTV said in a statement, in every meeting of the BoD status update of the ongoing plans is reviewed and the existing strategies are fine-tuned on the basis of operational ground realities. Therefore, the minutes of one or two BoD meetings cannot be construed as the complete plan of action of the organization as it is just a small part and not the whole.
Read More: The Naya PTV of Naya Pakistan
It is to be seen as to how will the national television deal with the financial crisis it is currently facing. Some experts suggest that PTV should be regulated through an independent board of governor who may monitor its financial and human resource-related matters professionally in order to let it regain public confidence. Given the costs to remain in the industry, the government could also evaluate whether it is the role of the government to be in the media business at all, and leave the field to the private sector. This would help to reduce its overall fiscal deficit as it retrenches PTV employees and other ongoing costs.
GVS News Analysis by GVS News Desk with additional input from Farah Adeed.