A litany of failures amidst the glitz

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I am stating the obvious here. It is not easy to run a TV station. What more an all-news channel for 24 hours a day and in Malay, English, Mandarin and Tamil (throw in Arabic for good measure). It has never been easy. It never will be.

Over the years, we have seen television stations in the country being sold off. Melewar Group's Metrovision and the Effendi Norwawi-owned ntv7, for example. After undergoing a spell of financial hardship, both ended up in the stable of Media Prima Bhd. Both stations were free-to-air, offering a variety of programmes — not only news, mind you.

Long before the days of Media Prima, Sistem Televisyen Malaysia Bhd, the operator of TV3, led a consortium to set up the multi-channel Mega TV, the country's first subscription- based television. It had its own local news content. But Mega TV also ran into trouble and had to be closed down.

Another multi-channel pay TV was MiTV. Despite being "helmed" by tycoon Tan Sri Vincent Tan, MiTV failed to make an impact and eventually folded.

We are hearing now of yet-to-be-launched WBC already running into problems and ready to be sold to the highest bidder. WBC, or Worldview Broadcasting Channel, was to be the country's "first" terrestrial television station offering round-the-clock news and current affairs programmes in Malay, English, Mandarin and Arabic. (More later on the claim of being first. )

What started off well did not end well. WBC had just begun transmission, albeit trial runs, in the Klang Valley when it encountered "heavy weather", resulting in operations being halted and employees not getting salaries on time or in full.

Back in 1998, national news agency Bernama set up its audio-visual unit. It wanted to expand, and state-owned Bernama entered into a partnership with a private company, giving birth to Bernama TV Synergy Sdn Bhd. The entity came up with Bernama TV, a free-to-air 24-hour all-news channel, making Bernama TV the first such channel in Malaysia, and not WBC as the latter claims. (Anyway, that's not the issue here.)

67% of Bernama TV Synergy was held by Silver Ridge Bhd, with the rest belonging to Bernama. But things got bad when Silver Ridge ran into financial difficulties. Transmission was jeopardised. Employees began receiving their salaries late. In came another private company — Red Berry Group.

That helped, but just a bit. Problems cropped up again soon after, prompting the government to step in and take over. Bernama TV is now on air and can be viewed on terrestrial or pay-TV operator Astro.

Another all-news channel is Astro's Awani, which was set up a couple of years ago. Unlike Bernama TV whose news programmes are in Malay, English, Tamil and Mandarin, Awani produces bulletins and current affairs programmes only in Malay and English.

Now, the country's first cable TV operator ABN (Asian Broadcasting Network, owned by businessman Datuk Kenneth Eswaran) is jumping on the bandwagon. And it too wants to offer an all-news channel broadcasting in English, Mandarin, Tamil and Malay 24/7. ABN has yet to announce the date of its transmission.

Ask people in the industry and they will tell you running news-only TV is much harder than multi-programme channels. Which is not to say multi-programme TV is easy. But in news, the "seriousness" of content is a big factor. If not presented nicely, the content will be deemed dry and mundane. In short, boring. That, needless to say, is a turn-off for viewers. Viewers turning off means advertisers and sponsors turning off. That can only mean no revenue.

But spend you must. First of all, you need big money to set up the channel and keep it going. Setting up would mean getting transmission towers, premises, equipment, manpower and so on.

A big chunk of money is needed for operations per se — daily and endless news coverage and presentation — either live or recorded. Then there's the transmission cost which can run into at least RM10 million per year. Don't forget satellite charges and what not.

Simply put, set aside RM100 million as operating costs. That's just for one year. Like any other business, you need at least two years to stabilise and break even. Perhaps three, meaning spending RM300 million before thinking of profit. Like I said earlier, that is just to put it simply.

Then there is the question of contending with content.

The benchmark, like it or not, when talking of an all-news channel will be CNN, Al- Jazeera or BBC World. The quality of reporting and presentation comes into play big time.

Yes, television is about glitz and glam. Still, substance goes a long way in determining success or failure. Equally important is the scheduling of programmes — to slot what programme at what time to catch competitors off guard, how much air time for live presentation, how much recorded telecast, how many repeats. And how often do you run reruns? How many times per loop?

Then there's competition of course. Now, the biggest threat comes from or via the Internet. YouTube, for example — anybody with just a phone camera can record events and put them out for the whole world to see within minutes. This gives "breaking news" a new dimension. And for free.

Many are taking advantage of better bandwidth, cheaper video gear and smartphones, which everyone seems to have nowadays.

In the current landscape, Web TV and news portals seen (rightly or wrongly) as "independent, fair and unbiased" are standing tall. And they are capable of delivering news very fast, to the extent of covering events "live". A good example was the coverage of Bersih protests, which were carried live via streaming.

Industry sources say our television stations are suffering as far as ratings are concerned. In a nutshell, ratings are down for news or other programmes on terrestrial and pay channels. Even flagship news programmes are experiencing a slide in the number of viewers.

I would not want to conclude that the future is bleak for television in Malaysia. Suffice it to say these are tough times and many challenges lie ahead. Money is one thing but new and innovative ideas are also needed, especially for TV news.

Finally, which ironically is the most important factor of all, it is the preference of viewers, particularly young ones. As news goes, these young people — or most of them anyway — want fair, unbiased reporting. True, this freedom of the press thing can be argued — to use the overused phrase — till the cows come home.

Still, it's no secret what many demand or expect from our media (in this case, TV news). Question is, can our TV meet such a demand?

Mohsin Abdullah is a specialist writer with soon-to-be-launched fz.com. He has worked in several local TV stations. This story appeared in The Edge Financial Daily on Oct 1, 2012.