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Pakistan's Peaceful Revolution

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    Pakistan's Peaceful Revolution

    Since the September 11th terrorist attacks and the beginning of U.S. bombing raids in Afghanistan, news feeds from Pakistan have been a nightly staple on television sets around the world. Inside Pakistan, however, a number of less dramatic events have been quietly revolutionizing the television industry and the kind of programming available to the average viewer.

    In the last year, the Pakistani TV industry has seen major changes in both the free and pay TV sector, as cable penetration has continued to grow and the first private terrestrial channel, Indus Vision, was launched, breaking the longstanding monopoly held by the state-owned broadcaster.

    Ghazanfar Ali, the Karachi-based CEO of Indus Vision, notes that prior to the introduction of the new commercial station this year, "The market had become stagnant. We had three terrestrial channels all owned by Pakistan TV. We needed to breathe some fresh air into the system and I think, within a period of [a few] months, we have succeeded in doing so."

    The government-owned terrestrial stations, PTV1, PTV2 and PTV3, currently reach about 50 percent of this country's 147 million population. But with cable having built up a strong presence in all the major cities during the last two years, the entertainment-starved populace was looking for more commercially oriented fare, Ali says, that was not being provided by the state-owned broadcasters.

    Indus Vision is promising to do just that. "I think my channel has already had a positive impact on PTV," Ali says. "They are beginning to fell the competition and they know they have to beef up their programming in order to survive," says Ali.

    Akhtar Wacquer, director of programming in the state-owned Pak TV agrees. "Pak TV is determined to respond to the competition," he says. "We are presently involved in a brainstorming session on how best to change our programming. We are using the Indian channels, Sony TV and Zee TV, as our role models. Both are family-oriented channels, we want to come up with a similar mix."

    Indus Vision's role model for a successful channel also includes studying the successful paradigms established by Zee TV, Sony TV and Star TV in the more highly developed Indian cable business while trying to find a programming strategy that meets the unique needs of the market. Unlike Indian networks, Ali does not want to overwhelm viewers with film-based programs. "Pakistanis love Indian movies and that is why they are hooked to Indian channels. But I am deliberately trying to move away from this syndrome and come up with a specifically Pakistani-centric mix," says Ali.

    Ali also hopes to build up the local audience by providing better news. "Pakistan is run by a military dictatorship," he notes. "The present news is biased and one-sided. We want to present a more objective point of view."

    More such programming is on the way. At the end of August, the company launched a music channel targeted to teens that features a mix of pop music and Urdu songs. To avoid the government's restrictive regulatory policies, several private broadcasters are also planning to telecast from Dubai. One of Dubai's richest families, which made its money in gold trading, recently purchased a local satellite channel called ARY-Digital, which will be relaunched under the name of ARY-Gold.

    Currently there are about 50 channels available in the market, many of which beam in from India, and subscription rates for cable vary between Rs 200-300 ($3.38-$5.00) per month.

    Faced with rapid growth in the number of cable homes and operators, government regulators at the Pakistan Telecommunications (PT) are working to regularize the industry. This year, it granted licenses to 150 cable operators who paid Rs 50,000 ($847) for cable franchises and an additional annual fee of Rs 15,000 ($254) to PT. Currently cable penetration in urban areas runs about 30 percent while terrestrials reach about 90 percent of the country.

    Currently, the annual TV ad spend in Pakistan is about Rs 700 crore ($118 million) of which about Rs 390 crore ($66 million) goes into the Pak TV's kitty. According to Wacquer, Pak TV is charging about Rs 1.5 lakh ($2,542) for a 30-to-60 second ad in prime time but increasing competition is creating more discounting in ad sales. Pak TV does not, however, sell its own advertising, which is handled by outside intermediaries.

    Ali is unwilling to reveal the ad rates he is presently charging. "I cannot charge prices as high as Pak TV but at the same time I am not willing to destabilize the market," he claims.

    Some media analysts believe the success of private channels may well force the government to open up terrestrial broadcasting in the coming months, which should further open up the market for programmers and advertisers. As one executive argues, "Pak TV is not some goddess. Let it compete and adapt like companies all over the world. Monopolies are bad for growth.

    All people are equal, but some are more equal than others. We call these "corporations."

    are these channels planning to cater to expats and overseas second or third gen pakistanis as well?
    The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist. And like that... he is gone.