Protectionism or professionalism: Choice for teledrama industry

The Teledrama industry blames TV channels and imported content for the crisis that engulfs it. But its viewership crisis is one the industry must address itself

What is the cheapest television content to produce that still attracts high viewership in Sri Lanka?

As a TV station owner once revealed in a public forum, it is political talk shows. Participants readily turn up – day or night – and engage in verbal fights that our audiences seem to lap up. The only costs are a moderator and a basic studio set, both re-usable. Another popular programme genre that is being mass produced cheaply is teledramas or television serials. Therein lies a problem: the local teledrama industry is trapped in a vicious circle of low budgets and low production values. An estimated 5,000-6,000 Lankans who earn their living from this industry – as actors, script writers, directors and technical crew – are desperately searching for ways to break free. So far, many have opted for the protectionist path. The Tele Makers Guild (TELEMG: http://telenisasl.org), an industry alliance, has been lobbying for the taxing of imported teledramas. They claim these are flooding the local market and undercutting their business.

It is true that teledramas made in India and Korea have greater production value, and have garnered higher audience ratings when broadcast after being dubbed in local languages. Those productions enjoy economies of scale, and at least in the case of Korean ones, there may even be state subsidies, as these are seen as a key instrument of rising Korean ‘soft power’ in Asia.

Foreign content tax
Protests and pleas by local teledrama makers are not exactly new. Responding to TELEMG lobbying, the Rajapaksa government introduced a (import) duty on imported television content in 2006. It was presented as a way to force TV stations to air more than 400 locally made, Sinhala language teledramas that had not been accepted for broadcast.

The import tax varied depending from where the foreign content originated. The highest charges were slapped on popular Hindi movies, followed by Indian teledramas. Due to opposition by Tamil parliamentarians, imported Tamil language shows were exempted. The tax on English ones was also later reduced. Even foreign-made TV commercials were covered by this tax.

It is unclear if these protectionist measures helped ease the backlog of independently made teledramas. Broadcasters argued that many of these were simply unusable due to poor quality.

The tax applied to both state-owned and privately owned broadcasters, but the hardest hit were smaller, private channels catering to urban viewers. They could not recover the added cost from advertising during such broadcasts. As a result, it not only reduced content diversity available to Sri Lanka’s multicultural audience, but led to the loss of dozens of jobs at smaller TV channels that were forced to downscale operations.

According to an industry leader, the tax would have accumulated at least Rs1 billion over the years. These funds were meant to benefit the TV content industry, but there is no accountability on its use. Some funds were apparently spent on setting up Ranminithenna, a tele-cinema village in the Hambantota district. That facility opened in 2010, but is infrequently used (another white elephant?).

Meanwhile, the import tax has earned Sri Lanka international notoriety. For example, the US Trade Representative’s (USTR) National Trade Estimate Report on Sri Lanka for 2013 mentions the continuing discrimination against imported content.

To be sure, there are unresolved debates internationally on the merits and demerits of ‘cultural protectionism’. Probably the best known example is European resistance to Hollywood movies and TV shows. Smaller media markets in Asia have similar concerns about the regional dominance of Bollywood’s Hindi output (not to mention content coming out in several other Indian languages). In a globalised world, how far can or should Sri Lanka try to shield its domestic cultural content producers, and at what cost?

Crisis of imagination
As a viewer, I am opposed to cultural protectionism because it reduces my choice. So when TeleMG invited me to be keynote speaker at their annual meeting held in early April, I urged them to pursue the path of professionalism instead. Their big challenge, I said, is to make better shows with existing budgets. That requires lots of creativity and resourcefulness.

Teledramas in Sri Lanka had a good start, with a string of path-finding series being made in the 1980s and 1990s. Much of the talent and technical skill at the time was drawn from the film industry.

Soon, the ‘small screen’ evolved into its own industry. The dominant business model is producing content independently and then trying to sell it to a TV channel. (Broadcasters commissioning content is uncommon.) Channel proliferation since 1992 created more outlets, but at a certain point, supply overtook demand. We now have 24 terrestrial TV channels, nine of which air Sinhala teledramas. Unhealthy competition has led to low wages, poor standards and an overall dumbing down of stories. Faced with a buyer’s market, some broadcasters drove down the price paid per episode. A 20-minute episode these days can fetch anything between Rs90,000 and Rs200,000. (Higher-end productions once commanded nearly twice as much.) Teledrama makers complain that, given these prices, it is impossible for them to compete with foreign content.

But are bigger budgets and better sets the only reasons for the consistent popularity of locally dubbed foreign shows? The reality is actually more complex.

Bertram Nihal, an audio-visual professional who has been in the industry for over 30 years, agrees that the quality of our teledramas has gone down drastically. They do not stimulate viewers’ minds. So much so, he says, that these cannot be considered art or cultural products. They are simply cheap entertainment. According to him, digital technologies are advanced enough to enable quality creations with a smaller crew and tighter budgets. For this, of course, more imagination and creativity are needed.

Bertram says much of our television industry – and not just teledrama makers – is affected by the lack of well-trained technical and creative professionals. There is no proper film or TV training school, and broadcasters invest little on human resources. Those inside TV stations and many freelancers working in production companies lack professional dignity and pride.

Obsolete notions
Teledramas, in my view, are stymied conceptually as well. Many stories seem to be trapped in narrow mindsets that romanticise rural poverty while demonizing cities, an open economy and modernity. When humour is used on rare occasions, it is often crude and sexist.

No wonder discerning viewers have given up watching teledramas. Cable TV, YouTube and now Netflix are increasing their choices for quality entertainment. Some enterprising youth are now bypassing broadcasters altogether and directly releasing new content online: for example, satirists Gappiya (in Sinhala) and JehanR (in English) have attracted a significant number of followers. They will soon find ways to monetize popularity.

Confronted with advancing technologies, fragmenting audiences and unsympathetic broadcasters, what are teledrama makers to do? Appeals to ‘watch local’ can only go so far when most content is palpably bad. The way out, I argued, is not through crying foul or protectionism, but by investing in greater professionalism.

Our teledrama makers must get their act together before blaming TV channels or seeking state intervention. When content is wholesome and enjoyable, audiences will surely come — and stay on for more.