BTV on Life Support

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The following piece came out in July 5, 2008 in The New Age, and was republished in this blog.

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For those of us old enough to remember, December 1989 was a special month. The Bangladesh Television had turned 25, and to celebrate the silver jubilee, the BTV had chalked out a special schedule for the whole month, replaying an episode of most of their popular series that had been televised over the 25 years.

‘Mukhora Ramani Bashikaran’, ‘Sangsaptak’, ‘Apnar Daktar’, ‘Chaturanga’, ‘Triratna’, ‘Six Million Dollar Man’ were on air each day with people glued to their television, nostalgic parents sharing their youth with their children while the streets were simply barren.

You could not have caught every programme on air that month, and some wisecrack will have remarked ‘wait another 25 years till the BTV turns 50’ to go down memory lane once more.

Six years from now, in 2014, the BTV will turn 50. And yet, for obvious reasons, reminiscing about the golden years of the BTV does not hold much meaning anymore. Even if the BTV does come up with another month-long celebration, will we be watching? How many people will be watching the BTV regularly then? But most importantly, will the BTV be around then?

Much has changed since 1989. In 1992 satellite television entered the country and for the first time Bangladeshis were given a treat of being allowed to choose from a range of channels, 24-hour entertainment and channels specialising on different aspects. The month-long celebration looked benign in comparison.

By the turn of the century we had cable connection which allowed most of the houses in Dhaka and other major cities to access satellite TV. Ekushey Television for a few years also had access to terrestrial telecast rivalling the BTV’s reach across the country. Today, there are nine private Bangladeshi channels on satellite. Meanwhile, the BTV has lost its relevance to Bangladeshi viewers, at least in the big cities.

Till the 1990s, the BTV may have entertained viewers, held up national interest and culture, and introduced and promoted many young and talented artists, but it was generally the subject of much criticism.

From the very beginning the BTV has been under tight government control on the content of programmes, especially dictating the content of the news. Censorship has prevailed in most of the programmes, while one does not remember BTV telecasting a single news item that related information in opposition to the government in its first quarter century.

There were further allegations of corruption and nepotism. Artists were been drafted based on their connections to the government, to senior artists who appeared to be working at the BTV forever, or in exchange of underhand favours. There were further allegations of cheques being withdrawn without accountability. The BTV appeared only to answer to the government, in ensuring that nothing that affects the reputation of the government is telecast, and not to the viewers, its real owners through the payment of taxes, changing schedules or interrupting programmes, according to their whims and fantasies.

People had grown tired of following the head of state and ministers wherever they went through the BTV camera. People had grown tired of government propaganda, of being told to do through the BTV what the government thought was in their best interest. And, of course, especially during the military rule of HM Ershad, we had to bear those songs that were repeated over and over again, ‘apparently’ written by Mr Ershad himself.

Before the 1991 elections, the two leading political parties, the BNP and the Awami League, in their election manifesto, promised to give the Bangladesh Television complete autonomy, a popular demand since the beginning of the BTV and something that it exercised for a brief period from 1967 to 1971.

For the first five years, ‘autonomy’ did not see the light of day. In 1996, once again, the autonomy of the BTV fared strongly during the election campaigns, and while satellite television grew in strength to strength during this period, the BTV failed to earn its autonomy.

By 2001, while the political parties kept on promising, people had given up. The BTV would never change and they started looking elsewhere – in the fresh and growing private television channels.

It was not meant

to be this way

In 1963, when the first director general of the BTV envisioned a television station in Dacca, East Pakistan, people thought he was crazy. Dhaka then had two Chinese restaurants and the tallest building in town was the DIT Bhaban which was seven-storey tall.

And yet he persisted. A group of enthusiastic cultural personalities led by artist Mostafa Monowar and singer Kalim Sharafi set about setting up a studio, designing sets and developing programmes without no prior training or experience on how to work in television.

‘A steel re-rolling mill based in Narayanganj constructed the first tower by only reading the instructions from a manual,’ recalls Monowar, who still persists with the BTV in some form or the other after 44 years.

Led by their zeal to promote Bengali culture, the BTV was the first institution in the subcontinent that issued cheques in Bengali. The BTV logo which is retained even today was designed by Shilpachariya Zainul Abedin.

Then on December 25, 1964, people living within ten-mile radius of the DIT Bhaban became the first people in the subcontinent to watch television. Ferdousi Rahman sang ‘Oi je akash neel holo aaj shey shudhu tomar preme’ and the BTV had begun its journey.

During the years of live telecast the BTV was on air from six to nine in the evening. In a year, it was increased to five hours and then nine.

‘With two cameras in a 20-by-40-foot room which also had sets for news and presentation we were making dramas, serials, dance, music, debate, talk shows, news analysis, and children’s programmes and contests,’ recalls Monowar.

And they had to resort to many creative measures.

While a musician was singing about the sea, Monowar drew paintings of waves on a cardboard while two people held it from the sides. When the background had to be changed the camera would be held on the face of the artist while the assistants quickly replaced it. To give better lights, engineers would place themselves dangerously on an elevated position through the entire duration of a show. Elaborate sets for dramas would be prepared in the hour gap between programmes when an English series was on air.

‘Once, for a song sequence, I had to show a mob,’ says Monowar. ‘I lined up 12 people in the studio and first took a panned shot. Then as the camera closed in on three to four of them by moving forward, the rest of the people moved around and encircled the camera and the camera kept on rotating,’ he says.

‘For years, people could not figure how we fit in so many people at that small studio,’ Monowar breaks out in a laugh.

The 1970s was an era when the stars of Bangladeshi television emerged. Golam Mustafa became big with Mukhora Ramani Bashikaran, while Ferdousi Majumdar and Abdullah Al Mamun were the BTV’s first star pair. Dr Badruddoza Chowdhury and Abdullah Abu Sayeed introduced social awareness and ‘variety shows’ to television. Khan Ataur Rahman discovered talents that still survive today through ‘Esho gaan shikhi’.

Humayun Faridi, Afzal Hossain, Suborna Mustafa, Raisul Islam Asad, Al Mansur, Shampa Reza and Asaduzzaman Nur emerged from the theatre and took television by storm from mid-1970s till the late-1980s. Humayun Ahmed’s quartet of drama serials ‘Ei shob din raatri’, ‘Bahubrihi’, ‘Ayomoy’ and ‘Kothao keo nai’, which ran till the early 1990s, redefined the way television drama was to be written. Runa Laila, Shahnaz Rahmatullah and Sabina Yasmin were reaching new highs with patriotic and modern Bengali songs and Shamim Ara Nipa wrestled out everyone else to become the face of television dance.

‘The BTV was the only medium around through which you could reach to the largest audience,’ says Nasiruddin Yousuff, famed director of the stage and a producer with the BTV from 1979 to 1984. ‘The senior men in the BTV went scouting and whoever was doing well in theatre or music or dance was being recruited by the BTV,’ he recalls.

The BTV’s heydays continued till the early 1990s with yet another crop of talent in Bipasha Hayat, Toukir Ahmed, Azizul Hakim, Zahid Hasan, Shomi Kaiser and Afsana Mimi.

Since then, however, it has all gone downhill.

Today, the BTV looks tacky and gaudy– poor imitation of the sophisticated private television channels. Cardboard sets in loud, uncoordinated colours, untalented, and possibly rejected elsewhere, artists, and news, which till this day panders to the government in a boring, monotonous delivery.

What went wrong?

Since 1982, as one senior BTV official reveals, the BTV has not recruited a single full-time producer from the outside, as was the tradition and instead promoted assistant producers through the ranks.

‘Assistant producers are essentially people who do the leg work and not necessarily endowed with a creative faculty,’ says one senior executive of a private television channel formerly with the BTV.

He further claims that the BTV works completely under a government system where people are recruited directly from the Bangladesh Civil Service (information cadre) and payment is made at rates fixed by the government which are not at all competitive.

‘Out of the 35 director generals we have had till date only two to three of them were cultural personalities,’ says one former producer. ‘The rest have all come directly from government service.’

The current director general meanwhile is a temporary position titled ‘acting’ and is on additional duty. ‘Imagine, the person who heads the BTV today takes it as his secondary task,’ he says.

‘If you are promoted to a position in the BTV you hold on to that position for life until and unless you have been promoted or replaced because of political reasons,’ says a senior BTV official. ‘That way, we also do not get efficient people from the BCS cadre as their chances of promotion in other sectors of the government are much higher.’

The position of general manager in the BTV is of the same rank as a deputy secretary, though it takes about the same time to reach that position as it takes for another government official to become a secretary.

A dearth of creative producers and artists has left the BTV dry.

‘Before satellite television all artists, irrespective of remuneration, would come to the BTV as there were no other channels. Now they are made much more lucrative offers from the private channels,’ says the BTV official.

Furthermore, the equipment used by the BTV is very back-dated. ‘Most of the equipment we use has been bought in 1980. There has been small procurement since then, however, it cannot be utilised without a full overhaul of the system,’ says the BTV official. BTV, he informs, still relies on manual transmission while most other channels have moved on to digital.

‘It is also difficult to procure equipment under the government system. A single tender can take up to four months to complete. If the government is unhappy with the rates quoted we call in a new tender. By the end of two tenders a financial year ends and we have to start from the scratch again,’ he adds.

And yet, according to the BTV official, the BTV earns revenues in excess of Tk 30-40 crore every year which lands directly in the government coffers while the BTV is handed a fixed budget every year from the information ministry and is answerable to the ministry for every single expense and programme.

‘There must be a mechanism in which BTV can spend its own money and recruit its own people,’ he says.

A government mouthpiece

On December 25, 1964, on the first day of transmission, while Field Marshal Ayub Khan, the then president was inaugurating the BTV, a band of supporters of the opposition leader Fatima Jinnah surrounded the DIT Bhaban protesting against his presence.

The next day during the news telecast, the news of protest appeared after the news of inauguration, on the then Pakistan Television. The following day, officials of the PTV in East Pakistan received a letter from the headquarters instructing them to never again telecast the news of opposition and all news on television must correspond with what was being broadcast on Pakistan radio.

Since that day, the creative minds in the BTV have strayed clear of the news, though government interference did not end there.

Any song or drama by Rabindranath Tagore was strictly banned from television while one of the early stalwarts Kalim Sharafi was refused permission to go to training abroad because of his reputation as a Rabindra Sangeet singer.

After 1972, when most institutions were brought under state control, the newly-renamed BTV suffered a similar fate being inducted under a government recruitment, promotion and salary structure.

With the advent of military rule in the country the situation in the BTV worsened.

‘President Ziaur Rahman would spend many evenings at the BTV and though he was genuinely concerned, his presence did not bear good fruit all the time,’ says one former official. ‘The decision to promote assistant producers up the ranks was his.’

During the autocratic rule of President Ershad, the blatant interference of the then government is well-documented through his numerous songs and programmes and what not. Ershad would directly intervene with the recruitment and dismissal of artists and officials, favouring and neglecting them in his personal interest.

‘Ershad’s infamous tours abroad were he took his chosen artists are a shame to the artistic community of this country,’ says Monowar.

‘The institution of the BTV is a prime example of how artists have reduced themselves to subordinate mechanisms of politics and state,’ says Yousuff, who resigned from the BTV after being told to choose between his political activism and government job, by senior officials at the BTV.

After the restoration of democracy in 1991, with the promise of many changes, interference in the BTV never appears to have changed. In 1997, during the Awami League regime, the then information minister Abu Sayeed Chowdhury allegedly set up a room inside the BTV office with dubious intentions.

Sayeed vehemently denies any ill intentions but admits that the incident had grown out of proportions. ‘I had ordered that a room be set up where the ministers can wait if they have a scheduled programme as, otherwise, we would be sitting for hours at the director general’s room,’ he says. ‘The news about this room had reached the ears of the then prime minister Sheikh Hasina who in person went and visited the room.’

Today’s BTV, once again, is a flashback from the 1980s. There is blatant government propaganda- singer Momtaz and other talk shows asking us to have potatoes, blatant promotion- singer Hyder Husyn and others glorifying the armed forces, while the news camera follows Chief Adviser Dr Fakhruddin Ahmed like a shadow.

The question of autonomy

When asked about the question of autonomy a former producer with the BTV hands over a letter. It is a letter from BTV officials requesting him and other former senior officials to attend a meeting on June 28 to discuss the issue of autonomy of the Bangladesh Television.

‘I have been receiving this letter for the last ten years,’ he says.

From 1967 to 1971 the then Pakistan Television enjoyed a brief period of autonomy. From February 1971 to December, there was, however, a single platoon of Pakistan Army soldiers sitting at the BTV premises and dictating the programmes.

In the post-independence period, the BTV was brought under the mechanism of the state once more. However, the real demands for autonomy emerged during the rule of Ershad when blatant misuse of state-run television had reached a point of obscenity.

In 1997, the then government set up a special commission named ‘National Committee for Radio and Television’ headed by former secretary and cultural personality Asafuddowla, which also included eminent personalities such as Dr Anissuzzaman, Borhanuddin Khan Jahangir and Kalim Sharafi. They were also given the additional task of constituting an electronic media policy for the government to form a guideline to oversee private television channels.

After lengthy research, the committee recommended the formation of a five-member National Broadcasting Committee which would include an eminent educationist, a journalist and a senior cultural personality alongside the director generals of the BTV and the Bangladesh Radio, appointed by the prime minister directly, but who cannot be dismissed until the full completion of their term.

‘At one point we recommended that the committee will be only answerable to parliamentary committee on information and that the information ministry be abolished,’ says Asafuddowla.

This sent ripples down the spine of the government.

‘The parliamentary committee does not have enforcement powers and so we could not accept it,’ says Sayeed, the then minister. ‘We only wanted to retain the power to hire and dismiss the director general while every other function remains with the BTV.’

Then in 2001, after the four-party alliance rule came to power, the committee was reconstituted with serving government officials sitting in it. This time, for obvious reasons, the committee recommended that the government give limited autonomy and retain the power to hire and dismiss not only the director general but any official of the BTV.

During the tenure of current government a new proposal was constituted along with a media policy based on the recommendations of old committees and was handed over to the chief adviser, Fakhruddin Ahmed.

Once again, it was stalled after facing crticism from certain quarters for its association with the recommendations of the 2001 committee. Former information adviser Mainul Hosein says ‘I wanted to build on the same legal structure to make the intiative easy.’

‘No reform is perfect at once. I wanted to take to take the oppurtunity to break the barrier. Improvements become easier after that,’ he adds.

Asafuddowla, however, refutes the idea. ‘It is better to have no autonomy than a crappy one designed to get cheap popularity,’ he says.

The meeting held on June 28, essentially, has restarted the process from scratches.

‘We rejected the last proposal because it basically panders to government officials and was drafted by them,’ says Ramendu Majumder, who attended the meeting. ‘We recommended the formation of a new committee with cultural personalities in it,’ he says.

Most people, however, fear that the government may eventually never give the BTV autonomy, that resistance is coming not only from the government and that all this is simply eyewash.

‘BTV officials sit comfortably waiting on their pension and other benefits. There is no way they would want to give up the comfort and enter the competitive world against private channels,’ says a BTV official.

‘I also do not see how the government will give up on their most powerful mechanism of influencing public opinion since they own it and pay for it,’ he says.

‘What we can ask for is a little more independence in recruitment so that we can hire creative producers and independence in financial transactions so we can pay the artists competitive salaries.’

‘It appears that BTV official’s want financial autonomy more than creative autonomy because they want to get their hands on the immense potential to make money from TV,’ says Monowar.

Why we need a healthy BTV?

The NHK, the state-run television channel of Japan, is a soothing sight for sore eyes. ‘The presentations, the sets they use, the colours are understated yet brilliant,’ says Monowar. State-run televisions in Singapore, Malaysia and China are equally impressive. Meanwhile, the role of the British Broadcasting Corporation, the state-run TV of England, is known for unravelling the dubious role of the head of state, former prime minister Tony Blair, in the Iraq war.

‘It is not that a state TV has to be the most popular and attractive TV on air from a country,’ says Faridur Reza Sagar, a director of Channel i, formerly with the BTV. ‘A national television educates, inspires, informs, and promotes and is not just limited to providing people entertainment.’

‘A national TV upholds the culture of a nation and promotes it all across the world,’ says Monowar. ‘We need a strong BTV to protect our population from the invasion of corporate culture which will go to all lengths to provide entertainment.’

‘In recent years it is sad to see the BTV trying to imitate private channels by hosting talk shows, the cheapest and easiest way of providing entertainment,’ he adds.

Yet, the BTV still has a chance.

While all cable televisions added together have a reach of about 36 per cent of the total Bangladeshi population, the BTV has a reach of nearly 98 per cent, say industry insiders. It also generates possibly the highest rates of revenue, charging fixed rates for commercial advertisements. The BTV went on satellite in 2004 with the introduction of the BTV World though the programmes till date are essentially the same.

The BTV also operates under certain ethics which may bear fruit for the country in the future.

‘We ensure that a certain fixed percentage of programmes cater to farmers, to children, to indigenous communities, health and education, and the promotion of national image,’ says one BTV official. ‘There are also rules on what kind of products can be advertised, at what times, and there is a rule that Bangladeshi models have to be used.’

Experts also say that the government should monitor the growth of satellite television and rethink its policy.

‘For Tk 300 you get nearly a 100 channels across all homes in the cities,’ says one BTV official. ‘This is not the case in many developed countries. They have a strong national television with a number of channels and if anyone wants to watch satellite they have to buy a receiver for a good amount of money.’

In 2012, the last surviving crop of the BTV officials who had joined from the outside in 1982 will retire. After that, it will only be the BCS cadres who run the channel. Before that happens, the government must take a decision to revive the BTV.

‘We have to save the BTV to save our future generations from walking the wrong line,’ says Yousuff.

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