The future is always tantalisingly unknown. One can only note past and present trends to project possibilities. Invited to look at invisible tomorrows with today’s telescope, this writer sees five factors shaping the next phase of TV channels. They are: technology, economy, sociology, TV channels themselves and regulations
From being viewed at fixed locations on stationary TV sets, today images are already as mobile as the cell phone and its user. This dimension of being seen while being on the move will surely impact the nature and duration of both the picture and the sound. Even today, in 2018, the average duration of headlines and explanatory words have steadily shrunk compared to the previous decades – be it on the BBC or local channels. Though TV channels have already greatly damaged the narrative coherence through mid-breaks, conventional viewing at home – as a family and social interaction – is likely to remain a ritual along with existing and new distractions.
A distinction is required between how content is projected by the news and the non-news channels. The latter category is unlikely to undergo any major change. Drama, music, entertainment and in-depth documentaries demand minimal time-frames. Sports events, even 20-overs’cricket matches cannot be condensed. But sheer mobility will impact aspects of news and analysis.
New technologies are emerging rapidly. Direct-to-home transmission is now only one of the diverse conduits. As in the past, old and new forms may converge – from still photography to motion pictures to television and to recording variations as in VHS tapes to DVDs to miniaturised USBs – to unlikely new ways to consume and disseminate content. YouTube enables individuals to operate their own channels. Every single minute, 300 hours of videos are uploaded to YouTube. This gargantuan volume of material requires potential viewers of TV channels to know in advance precisely which channel and what content is being sought. This increases the need for Pakistani TV channels to sharpen and define their own precise identities to avoid diffusion and anonymity in cyberspace.
Economic considerations have to begin with financial feasibility. This writer recalls that when as a cabinet member, one advocated the introduction of a law to permit private electronic media, some ministerial colleagues, and other people in general, were highly sceptical about whether more than three or four private channels would be feasible.
But with about 120 channels today, of which 30-plus are news channels, I stand vindicated regarding my conviction that Pakistan’s documented and undocumented economy could well afford dozens of channels. It is another matter that the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) has been most indiscriminate in issuing private television licences.
PEMRA should have applied more rigorous criteria, other than monetary capacity alone, to ascertain eligibility, especially in the news category.
Despite the requirement of each licensee being subject to the scrutiny of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and thus being, in theory, accountable, there is significant non-transparency on many aspects of TV channels’ financing, including advertising rates charged to different types of advertisers.
In the years to come, the existing flawed revenue model of total reliance on the income from advertising alone is all set to deepen the economic stress of television channels. Eventually, they will need other revenue streams including viewers’ subscriptions, and grants. No wonder, rumours are rife about how several channels are unable to pay staff salaries for months. Currently, channels benefit their owners with multiple intangibles and measurable benefits, particularly for their non-media interests, but in the long-run, economic viability of channels is vital for their survival.
Society is churning, changing and meshing together modernity and pertinacious religious piety with tele-connectivity. This is fast approaching its optimal heights. As the middle-class – comprising different income levels from lower to upper-middle class – expands to about 30 million households in Pakistan, poverty, disparities, violence, poor-governance, corruption and congestive urbanisation are simultaneously moulding the social change. On one hand, news-media consumption patterns unduly frame agendas and perceptions dominated by grievance and protest; on the other – perhaps through a resigned fatalism – it is grateful for even crumbs. The Happy Planet Index of 2015, mapping how citizens in 143 countries view their respective sense of well-being, places US citizens at 108, Indians at 50 and besieged Pakistanis at a more cheerful 36.
So even if news channels remain fixated on the morose and the mess, well into the future, citizens and viewers are hopefully going to transcend the limitations of media in general and of news channels in particular.
There is a strong case evolving to launch “good news” channels in times ahead.
Paradigms, belief systems and brain-washing through education, media and advertising, direct mass behaviour. Yet, people at large are also capable of rejecting some aspects of the attempts to control their choices. How young and adult Pakistanis – by majority or in substantial numbers – decide to choose between different options for receiving news or entertainment will decisively affect the patterns of how TV channels evolve.
Technology, economy and sociology are driven by, or are subject to, forces beyond the control of channels and even the governments. Technological innovation that proves to be practical, regardless of where it originates, will quickly cover most parts of the globe.
Indeed, the global elements affect the economy of a country that may set up extremely protective barriers against intrusion. Societal trends are affected by how long-entrenched practices respond to the pressures of the new, disruptive information. And by choices that people make for their life-styles, preferences for products and services. Even in countries, where authoritarian regimes attempt to control behavioural patterns on a mass level, social engineering conducted by the state may be transiently effective but may not endure. Volatility is an intrinsic part of humanity.
The fourth and fifth factors that are likely to affect the future of TV channels are the decisions taken by channels themselves and the state regulations.
Firstly, media proprietors, who are virtually invisible to the public on the media, with a few exceptions, are the principal decision-makers on editorial policy, content and practices. Corporate-owners of TV channels are members of the Pakistan Broadcasters’ Association (PBA). In theory, this forum should be able to facilitate dialogue, consensus and concerted actions. But in practice, this only happens when shared yet narrow commercial self-interests make cooperation mandatory. The PBA offices are distributed to ensure minimal coordination without reconciling polarised positions.
Other than this facet, members of the PBA are riven by bitter differences. The PBA members accuse one another of disloyalty to the country, corruption and criminal offences. They fight court battles in Pakistan as well as in the UK. One newcomer accuses others of ganging up against it to erase the new competitive threat. To date, the PBA has never engaged in communication with citizens on issues arising from the inter-face between the people and TV channels. Given this situation, response by channels to new conditions may be sporadic, disjointed and reactive, rather than cohesive and progressive.
News channels have made high-pitched, hysterical tones the new “normal” for the presentation of headlines – whether as breaking or routine news. The sobriety and balance that should be the chief feature of conveying news have disappeared in the din of imitative, repetitive clamour. The visual habit of zany, mindless zoom-ins and zoom-outs on news images gives the impression that those sitting on the control panels are going through nervous breakdowns. Sweeping statements and allegations remain unchallenged by presenters or anchors. Yet, to their credit, in their much-derided talk shows that often end up as shouting matches, different viewpoints are given a chance to be heard and occasionally sane analysis is also conducted.
Ratings do not reveal the wide-spread disgust that many viewers have for the crudity and insensitivity with which news content is projected and commented upon.
In one sense, the people are already far ahead of both channels and advertisers stuck in their own grooves. The unknown future for channels may well be like a heavy dumpster driven at top speed about to turn a corner and hit existing reality with brute force. Who knows? Or change may come gradually, incrementally, phase by phase and hopefully for the better.
Regulations perhaps hold the key that opens the door to the unknown. Conventionally, regulations are always at least one step behind technology because it is impossible to anticipate most technological innovations and the new frontiers which they create.
With the fourth industrial revolution already underway via Artificial Intelligence, 3-D manufacturing, Augmented Reality, even more miniaturisation, and the internet of things, there is a dire need in Pakistan for the integration of telecommunications regulation with electronic media regulations. Presently, these are conducted by separate ministries and regulatory bodies. Ofcom in the UK is an appropriate model to learn from and apply. A single focal point instead of duplicative, often conflictual, confusing parallel streams would bring clarity, foresight and speed of adjustment to rapid change.
The superior judiciary’s reluctance to take punitive action against channels violating the code of conduct and license conditions, is a major obstacle that prevents effective regulatory discipline.
Instead of being vacated in two or three weeks, stay orders often remain valid for months and years.
Religious channels without licenses and those flouting court orders operate on the basis of stay orders. If such anarchy is allowed to persist, regulation in a rapidly changing environment will become all the more unstable and ineffective.
The future of TV channels in Pakistan will be shaped by how the leadership of all the related sectors takes cognisance of pending and emerging challenges and demonstrates the will and capacity to address them. But then, there is always the black swan – the utterly unpredictable single or several developments which unleash an entirely new reality. Let’s keep eyes open to spot that swan.