Bridging the Gap: Foreign and Local Programming


  Following is an extract from a presentation by Mr. Hugh LEONARD, Secretary - General of the Asia-Pacific Broadcasting Union, at the 6th Annual AMIC Conference held at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on June 19,1997. Mr. LEONARD gave some insightful advices to local broadcasters on how to equip themselves in face of keen competitions from foreign programming.

  The subject is: Bridging the gap - foreign and local programming.

  I suppose the first question is: what is this gap? What are we talking about - bridging the gap?

  Well, as I see it, it's a question of competition. Competition between the programming provided by the local broadcasters in their own country and the programming that is now bombarding the region from outside,
via satellite and other means. And the question uppermost in the minds of many national broadcasters is: can we compete?

  But there's another side to this matter.The other side is the wish or desire of Asian broadcasters to take their programming outside their own countries and outside the region. To project themselves and their country
to the rest of the world.

  We'll deal with each of these quite different and distinct gaps separately.

How to Face Competition

  Imagine the dilemma of a broadcaster in this part of the world. He is running his cozy little television service, pleasing his viewers some of the time, more importantly for him-pleasing his government most of the time, maybe even making some money if his service accepts advertising and generally quite satisfied with what he's doing.

  Then all of a sudden, down from the sky falls television programming the like of which his viewers have never seen. Slick, sophisticated, high-quality, quite captivating programming. Attractive to the audience. Made with resources much greater than local service can muster.

  At first, our hero doesn't worry. Not many people have dishes to receive that stuff anyway. And in any case, people prefer programmes in their own language. No need to worry.

  Then, three things happen. First, dishes spring up like mushrooms on a meadow all over the country. There's no way to stop them, because there's no legislation to control such things. Then, the transborder service starts providing programmes in the local language. Then, the goverment deregulates broadcasting and licenses other broadcasting services within the country, which begin with relays of satellite TV services from other parts of the world and a whole load of imported programming.

  Suddenly the small, underfunded broadcasting service is deeply into competition. Unfair competition, because it can't possibly produce programming of the standard of the rich and powerful transnational service. He's losing his viewers, the satellite service is reaching the entire country, with the local network's terrestrial transmitters can't do, he's also losing his advertisers because they want to be assured they have viewers.

  So what can our intrepid D-G do about it?

  I remember a speaker at a similar conference in a session dealing with this very subject a few years ago saying, "If your family is eating out all the time, you'd better improve the home cooking". In other words, if the viewers prefer the product from outside, it's time you improved the domestic one.

  That's not so easy to do, you say. The local service is constrained, financially, politically and sometimes culturally. That's true, of course. But, if your service is going to compete, the constraints must be lifted or gotten around somehow.

  You've got some weapons on your side. For a start, you know your audience. Or you should. If you do know them, you know what they like, so you have some useful knowledge that the satellite system based in HK or Singapore doesn't.

  One thing that you can be sure they like is programming in their own language or languages. And who is in a better position than you to give them that? Also programming that is set in places they know. In other words, programming they can relate to.

Improve "Home Cooking"

  A famous Canadian television expert by the name of Moses Znaimer once put together what he called the ten commandments of television. Three of them say:

  •  The best television tells me what happened to me, today.
  •  TV is a much about the people bringing me the story as the story itself.
  •  As worldwide television expands, the demand for local programming increases.

  And that is your great strength as a broadcaster in your country. You can provide the kind of programming, more easily and more effectively than someone somewhere else.

  Of course, the broadcaster must improve the quality of his programming as well. The range and variety of his programmes, as well as the actual production and technical quality. The hardest part of that is not so much a money or resources problem - although that's important as well. No, the biggest problem is the political one. The hardest lesson for broadcasting organisations in many countries to learn is that the television service cannot any longer be just a vehicle for putting across the government message. That is a legitimate use for a government-run broadcasting service, of course. But it is not one that will win viewers and listeners. And if you are serious about competing with the foreign programming in your country, then you must stop regarding the service as that and nothing else.

  The fact of the matter is that every programme on television must be an entertainment programme. l've said this on a number of occasions in the past and have got involved in some mighty arguments about it. But it is a simple fact. The only way you are going to win an audience and keep it is to entertain that audience. You must give them programming that they find attractive and will choose to view. Because they now have a choice. And only a half-wit would choose to be bored!

  That doesn't mean that you must throw out all your excellent public education programmes, for instance, or your cultural programmes or even your government information programmes. Not at all. But what you have to do is redesign them so that they become entertaining and appealing. That requires a bit of imagination and a bit of creativity. But it also need a completely different attitude on the part of the broadcaster. The old days of the audience having to accept whatever you dish out to them are gone. They now have a choice. And they are going to choose the channel that entertains them. Even when it's informing them and educating them.

Reaching Out

  Broadcasting is rapidly becoming globalised and I believe that in a few years any broadcaster worth the name will be transmitting programmes domestically and internationally. After all, most broadcasters of any size now have shortwave radio services, so an international TV service is the next step, which many have already taken.

  It is becoming easier and cheaper to do this and I think this tendency will continue. Perhaps it will be a question of prestige for the broadcaster and for his country. Besides that, many Asian broadcasters are now targetting programmes at the communities of their own nationals living in other countries. In addition to which, it could prove to be quite profitable.

  There are various ways in which your programming can be seen in other countries. The obvious one is, of course, by satellite. Quite a few of the larger terrestrial broadcasters in the region now have satellite services, either as part of their own organisation or as a subsidiary company. Satellite transmission is becoming more available and less expensive as we move into the digital age.

  But there are other ways. The obvious one is to produce programmes and distribute them on tape, which some are also already doing successfully and profitably. But that requires an efficient business organisation if it is to be done properly. But there is no reason why the broadcasters should not form alliances with other companies. I'm surprised that more are not doing this. They have the product and I believe there is great potential for business partnerships between them and companies with the resources and know-how to market that product.

  And don't forget the Internet. I believe the Internet is going to offer enormous opportunities for broadcasters in the future. Already many have their own websites and some are offering their own radio programmes on them in real time. At present, video on the Internet is slow and cumbersome, but as the new streaming technologies are developed, television will be easily available - and that is not very far in the future.

Programming of Style

  The technical means are there, the business side can easily be taken care of, but what is needed is programming of a style and a standard that will appeal to people in other countries.

  Regrettably, too few Asian programmes meet those criteria. Many broadcasters seem to think that they can just take some of their domestic output and transmit it or sell it to those in other countries. That is just not so. In my view, programming that is to be exported by any means must be especially produced for the purpose. The fact that a particular programme is highly successful in the ratings in your own country doesn't guarantee that it will succeed internationally. In fact, it's most unlikely that it will.

  You must know your target audience and design your programmes for that audience.

  Another thing that is essential is originality. Far too many progammes that we see in this region are simply clones of American, or occasionally British, programmes. Just about every country has its own version of Wheel of Fortune, for instance. In fact, some companies make a lot of money selling templates or whatever they might call them. Formats on which local programmes can be produced. If you want success in the international marketplace, be original. Find a new formula.

  On the same lines, one of the things that will make people buy a programme from Asia in preference to one from the United States is that it is uniquely Asian. That it is a programme that could only have been produced in Asia. So, look for something that is unique to your country and unique to Asia.

  It goes without saying that the programmes must be of the highest production and technical quality. Second best will not do if you are competing with the best. Your equipment must be state-of-the-art, your creative people the best you can find and your productive staff real professionals, preferably with experience in the market you are trying to penetrate.

Viewers to Decide

  Actually, it's not such a great time to be the programme director on a television station right now. As everybody keeps telling us, broadcasting is a very changing business these days, so a programme director might be forgiven for not quite knowing which way to turn.

  What is he to do about all these fantastic new developments that are bombarding us - multimedia, video on demand, interactive TV. It seems that every month there's a new and more exciting way to change your programming. What should he do?

  My advice is: do nothing. Don't let it bother you. The simple fact is that a lot of clever people are experimenting with a lot of new techniques, all of which they say will totally change television in the near future. To that I say-absolute balderdash! Utter rubbish! Eventually, some of the new things will catch on. Some of them already have.

  But they are not going to change TV as we now know it. They are going to be add-ons. Or alternatives. The reason for that is very simply human nature. People are not overnight going to change the way they use their television set. And most people regard their TV set as a means of relaxing and of being entertained. In a passive way. Are we going to see all the couch potatoes suddenly sprouting? No, they are going to go on wanting to be entertained by their TV sets for a long time to come.

  In fact, I can't believe that there is now a debate going on amongst the boffins over what will prevail - what will dominate as the viewing means of the future - the TV set or the computer. That is a non-issue. The people who are having that debate completely forget the most important person in television, the viewer. He or she is the one who will decide the future of television in the age of new technologies. And any change will be very gradual indeed.

  Television is a people business and no broadcaster can ever afford to overlook the people he's serving, because they are the ones who decide whether a programme, a network, a new innovation or a new technoiogy will be a success. They will decide the future of television.

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