Evolution of Television in Pakistan

Shahbaz Siddiqui

Shahbaz Siddiqui

Shahbaz Siddiqui, MSc OP
Nucleus Media

Pakistan’s television industry has evolved in the last 50 years starting with the launching of Pakistan Television (PTV) in 1964 as a privately owned channel licensed by the Government of Pakistan. PTV was initially financed by Wajid Ali, a leading industrialist, in collaboration with Japan’s Nippon Electric Company and U.K.’s Thomas Television International. PTV started its transmission from Lahore in 1964, followed by Dhaka, Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan), then Rawalpindi/Islamabad. In 1966, PTV started its transmission from Karachi (Baig, 2012). In 1971, the government of Pakistan nationalized PTV.

Starting with black and white transmission, PTV soon upgraded to broadcast in color. Initial programming was live without editing or enhancements because of the lack of recording equipment. In the 1970s, one-inch magnetic spool was used to record sound and moving pictures as a combined stream. However, the early recordings were lost because of lack of air-conditioning in the archival rooms and general neglect resulting in the loss of archival treasure from the public broadcasting television golden era (Abdurab, 2014)

In 1988, Shalimar Television Network (STN) formed as a public-private partnership, began transmitting CNN rebroadcasts under agreement and in 1990 it signed on an airtime sales agreement with M/s Network Television Marketing (NTM). NTM’s use of STN’s terrestrial boosters spread across Pakistan, contributed to its success especially with the launch of some hit family drama serials (projecting a more realistic contemporary lifestyle). People called NTM’s broadcasts a breath of fresh air in the post-Zia-ul-Haq military dictatorship era (Paracha, 2014) because its programming was culturally open and not subject to heavy censoring by Zia-ul-Haq’s military government.

NTM represented a renaissance in narrative content on television accurately portraying cultural values of the time (Paracha, 2014). With PTV, people were bored of censored portrayals of family setups and male-female interactions (Rasool, 2014). NTM had singers and musicians performing live on television that enthralled the musically starved nation of the martial law years of Zia-ul-Haq (Paracha, 2013).

NTM also facilitated the emergence of private production houses, a milestone in the evolution of TV in Pakistan. Although, later officially sanctioned, renowned PTV producers initially powered these houses by moonlighting as producer/directors using pseudo-names. These talented producers helped the programming quality at NTM soar but their absence at PTV caused a decline in its programing quality and viewership.

In 1999, PTV entered the digital satellite television arena and launched PTV World (Khan & Rahman, 2013) on China’s Asia Sat 1 satellite. PTV World provided an opportunity to purchase airtime similar to the strategy used by STN with NTM. The difference in PTV World’s case as compared to STN was that instead of selling airtime to one party (e.g. NTM), it divided the airtime sales between two parties, Monday through Friday was sold to M/s Tele World, while Saturdays and Sundays were sold to M/s Weekend World. The PTV World experiment was a success as there was no private sector content being shown at the time. With NTM closing its operations in 1999, PTV remained the only TV station in Pakistan. In 2000, the Indus Television Network was launched as Pakistan’s first independent satellite channel to counter propaganda onslaught from India against Pakistan on locally established cable networks that irked the Musharraf government and the military establishment. PTV news broadcasts had lost their credibility because of the bias toward the incumbent government; as a result the audience viewed foreign television channels (mainly, India) and generated a need for “credible” content.

Before the launch of Indus television, a concurrent strategy was to develop a private television news bulletin at 10 PM on PTV World, a task delegated to Ghazanfar Ali, CEO of GAAZA Entertainment who proposed it to the Musharraf government. The government gave a go ahead to launch the Indus television network in December 2000. Its main purpose was to create an alternative for Pakistani audiences who were glued to Indian soaps and feature films.

The launch of ARY Digital coincided with the events on September 11, 2001 and global geopolitical scenario that was subsequent to the terrorists’ attacks on American soil. ARY Digital is owned by the ARY Gold group (major UAE-based dealer in precious commodities). The launch of ARY Digital satisfied the sponsors’ political needs. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s administration, preceding General Musharraf, brought many accountability cases against the ARY Gold Group as it had political inclinations towards Pakistan People’s Party. The second Nawaz Sharif government influenced National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to structure multiple cases against the ARY Group (WorldBank, 2013). The ARY group eventually succeeded and all cases against them were rescinded (DawnNews, 2011). ARY Digital later received numerous accolades for their news coverage of the war against terrorism in Afghanistan.

GEO TV, Pakistan’s third largest television channel, was launched in August 2002 and coincided with general elections organized by the Musharraf government. It played a pivotal role in disseminating political policies and messages of various political parties and their candidates.

At the time when democratic awareness was still nascent in the mindsets of people, the private television channels succeeded in creating awareness among the people to participate in elections. The private channels diligently produced content despite being financially challenged for lack of ads and exorbitant rates demanded by media buying houses. This was a catch-22 situation: the advertising industry demanded high quality content and channels needed advertising revenue to produce and broadcast them. The answer came from a company called M/s Media Logic, which in 2008 launched People Meters in Pakistan. A set of 400-odd anonymous households across major hubs in Pakistan were selected and people meters were installed to get accurate data of viewership patterns to help with obtaining ads (Andrew, 2012).

The journey that started in 1964 with the launch of PTV has exponentially evolved into more than 80 licensed satellite channels by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority established in 2002-2003. These channels actively compete for the biggest share of television advertising revenues (Rs. 22 Billion in 2011-2012). Across all media platforms ad revenues amounted to approximately Rs. 32 Billion (GallupPakistan, 2012).

The growth in electronic media industry (especially TV) is commendable, but even more commendable is the freedom given to the channels to express their respective points of view. Unfortunately, the recent rivalry between ARY Digital and GEO TV has put a strain on the freedom that had been achieved, and various media groups are now accusing each other of engaging in anti-establishment propaganda (ARYNews, 2014). This unfortunate media vs. media confrontation is the latest challenge faced by the fledgling 14-year-old independent television media in Pakistan that started to make a mark in the neighboring countries with its quality narrative programming.

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