CULTURE VULTURE: The strange logic of PTV
If new channels are to be allowed and encouraged, then the government has to play the role of an umpire and a monitor. They should also not allow companies and individuals to run away with producers and artistsí hard-earned money
History does repeat itself but surely not as frequently and as quickly as in Pakistan. I am not talking about the repeated Martial Laws ó enforced for the good of the people; to save the motherland from the enemy; and for the promotion of democracy. I am not even talking about the repeated enforcement of Islamic laws ó not even the ban on alcohol, yet again.
I am talking about the Prime TV scandal, an event which created ripples despite the highly politicised mood in the country. The only terrestrial private channel, hosted by PTV-3 (formerly STN), has new owners once again.
The buying and selling of shares of companies is routine matter at the stock exchange but this one has serious implications for the future of private TV productions and the freedom of the electronic media. The new owners have refused to honour commitments made by the previous owners and pay for the scores of TV serials or other programmes bought and telecast by the channel. That means most private producers have no guarantee that they will receive their dues, which may amount to over 50 million rupees. This may force several of them to go bankrupt. Also affected will be actors and technicians, who may not get their payments consequently. But the main damage will be the loss of faith on the part of the independent producers as far as private channels and the government policy of privatisation of the electronic media is concerned.
The disturbing thing is that the Ministry for Information and the PTV management has refused to ensure that the company using PTVís channel honours its commitments. Strange is their logic for not getting involved.
They claim that the contracts between Prime Entertainment (under the name of TIES) and the independent TV producers are private commercial contracts and PTV has nothing to do with the matter. They point to certain clauses in the franchise agreement to prove their point.
But the Prime transmission is shown on PTV-3 (where the STN/PTV logo is displayed all the time). It was the PTV Management and the Ministry of Information which gave the franchise to the Prime (TIES), in spite other bidders, who even went to the court to protest that the deal was not transparent and fair. How can they claim the non-involvement of PTV? Even if there is no legally binding obligation, they still have moral and professional obligations to ensure that contracts are honoured and payments made.
This happened before when NTM went down in 1998. The Federal Government set up Shalimar Television Network (STN) and NTM was allotted prime time. When the shareholders of this successful channel became involved in ugly battles with each other and PTV, the government allowed the channel to declare bankruptcy. Scores of private producers lost millions ó several never recovered from the setback and went out of business. Hundreds of actors and professionals were not paid.
Before NTM went bankrupt, the government could have stepped in and helped the producers, many of whom had invested their entire savings on productions for NTM. But it didnít.
Almost all major players in the NTM scam are back in business and enjoy regular and high-profile dealings with PTV and the government. The top NTM man who had fled at the peak of the crisis, is reportedly back in business again.
At least the government and PTV should have learned from the NTM debacle and ensured that the PTV-3 franchise-holders were legally bound to honour their commitments. But it seems that PTV is only interested in its franchise fees. It stopped Prime transmission for a day to force the channel to pay PTV dues. That in fact triggered the crisis and allowed the new management to take over. The argument that PTV has nothing to do with the channel is absurd. The public and the producers looked at it as a PTV channel and hence believed that it would not suddenly disappear. But that is exactly what is happening. The previous management is also gradually making an exit and may one day disappear altogether, as did those in charge of NTM.
I recall that when PTV entered into an agreement with Uni-TV for its Mid-East Prime Time slot on PTV-World, PTV agreed to blacklist the advertising companies which defaulted on payments to Unit-TV. If PTV can undertake to play such a role with one company, why canít it intervene in this case?
This would not happen anywhere else in the world. The incident reminds me of the Cooperatives scam ó influential people are involved and the lifeís savings of a lot of people are at stake. And the government pretends to be helpless.
Even the new Media Regulatory Authority has not intervened so far. What are they going to regulate then if not such matters? Or are they there just to protect the governmentís interests?
If the government is serious about privatising the electronic media and encouraging media freedom, then it has to play an active role in ensuring that there are no repeats of the NTM scandal. If private producers are not going to be guaranteed payments, how long will they be able and willing to produce plays? Most of them are individuals or small companies and can not survive in an uncertain business climate.
There is a widespread impression that PTV policy-makers are behind the recent Prime crisis and this is an attempt to re-establish PTV monopoly over the viewership and the advertising market. When PTV took control of the STN/NTM set up, this effectively gave PTV the same degree of control as before.
PTV is shy of open competition for obvious reasons. It is a huge and unwieldy government-controlled corporation with a lethargic workforce and outdated equipment and marketing set-up. It cannot freely adapt strategies according to the market demands as it has to follow government dictates. However in these times of globalisation of the electronic media and access to a large number of satellite channels, PTV and government policy-makers have to take bold and radical decisions to adapt to the fast-changing situation.
If new channels are to be allowed and encouraged, then the government has to play the role of an umpire and a monitor. They should also not allow companies and individuals to run away with producers and artistsí hard-earned money.
Shahid Nadeem is a playwright and TV producer of repute