x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

$20 million windfall for Pakistani TV

US aid agency offers funding over four years to make educational programmes for children, but industry insiders see the project as a cash cow.

ISLAMABAD // A US-funded project to develop educational television programming for Pakistani children has set the broadcast industry alight with an offer of enough funding to build and operate a world-class satellite channel.

USaid, the US Agency for International Development, issued a request for applications for its proposed Pakistan Children's Television (PCTV) project on December 18, saying it intended to provide US$16 million to $20 million (Dh59m to Dh73m) over four years to the successful applicant. "The overarching goal of PCTV is to develop the language, problem-solving and critical thinking abilities of children through television and other media programmes and outreach materials - [and it] also seeks to promote positive attitudes among young Pakistani audiences," the USAID request document said.

It also clearly stated it is US aid policy not to promote profit under its assistance instruments, although "all reasonable, allocable and allowable expenses, both direct and indirect" would be reimbursed. However, that proviso did not prevent the Pakistani organisations - a mix of cable TV networks, advertising agencies, universities and non-government organisations - from viewing the project as a cash cow, some applicants said.

"Eyes lit up across Pakistan when they saw the money," said the project manager for one applicant, a consortium led by a non-governmental organisation. "Never mind that many of the lead applicants were media novices, and had to form consortia with TV channels just to fill in the request document's sections on programming strategy and technical operations." Broadcast experts put the buying power of the USaid project into commercial perspective, saying it was an enormous sum in any market, but particularly so in Pakistan because of the immaturity and, therefore, limited professional capability of the local media.

"You are talking about a market where producers spend no more than $1,500 on an episode of a top-end programme, $2,000 on a drama episode, and $3,000 for an animated programme episode," said Azar Mahmood Sadiq, a UK-based independent broadcast consultant. "The Americans would be expecting a Pakistani version of Sesame Street [the famous US children's programme]. In practice, what they could easily end up with is Aynak Walla Jinn [a popular Pakistani show with glove puppets]."

Mr Sadiq, who has directed operations for four leading Pakistani networks, including Geo TV and CNBC Pakistan, said he was "blown away" by the amount of funding being offered to the successful applicant by USaid. He said the $16 million to $20 million in funding on offer from USaid, if structured as a "greenfield" cable channel project, meaning built from scratch, would be enough to build "another Sky News", referring to the leading UK-based network owned by News Corp, and operate it until the project broke even in its third year of operations.

"You could put together world-leading state-of-the-art production and transmission facilities, buy in most of the programmes from production houses for the first two years, building in-house capacity in the interim, and still have between $6 million and $10 million left to spend on salaries," he said. Project sustainability is a key US aid requirement. Project managers for applicant parties said the project would certainly enable USaid to achieve its primary objective of establishing a media platform from which its messages could be effectively delivered to young Pakistanis aged 25 and under, who comprise more than 70 per cent of the country's estimated population of 170 million.

They said USaid was also considering the option of funding a dedicated cable channel, but was leaning towards the option of broadcasting programmes in timeslots purchased from a variety of channels, including Pakistan Television, the state network, which enjoys a monopoly on free-to-air terrestrial television. Cable channels are popular in urban centres, but about 70 per cent of Pakistanis live in rural communities and are reliant on state TV for entertainment.

"The objectives of USaid are heavily reliant on the outreach factor which, in my view, entails a discriminatory tilt towards the state terrestrial channels," said Matiullah Jan, project manager for Aurora Broadcasting Services, the owner of DawnNews, Pakistan's leading English cable network. However, the Pakistani state media and broadcast regulators did not learn of the USaid project until a couple of weeks before the January 22 deadline for submission of applications, said sources at the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), the state regulator.

It prompted Pemra to call prospective applicants to a meeting at the headquarters of state television, where USaid representatives were lectured for not having consulted the Pakistani government stakeholders on the children's television project, participants said. "The Pemra chairman made a point of saying that the project could not go ahead without the participation of the state and the public sector media. Clearly, a message was being conveyed to USaid," Mr Jan said.

However, there is nothing definitive in Pemra regulations to prohibit the broadcast of programming funded by a foreign government, as long as it does not interfere with the domestic political process or criticise the state. USaid is expected to announce the award of the PCTV project soon, after which a second television project, for the promotion of social advocacy, is on the cards, the project managers said. @Email:thussain@thenational.ae