HOW CAN BROADCASTERS SURVIVE THE DIGITAL MEDIA LANDSLIDE?

LANKAN BROADCASTERS ARE UNITING UNDER AN INDUSTRY ASSOCIATION TO FACE COMMON CHALLENGES. WIDESPREAD INTERNET ACCESS AND ITS TRANSFORMING EFFECT ARE AT THE CORE

“All established media around the world are experiencing a highly disruptive landslide triggered by technology advances and market forces. No one is immune to its effects. The only way to survive is to adapt, redefine our roles and remain relevant to media audiences.”

This was the gist of advice a leading Asian broadcast professional gave his Lankan counterparts at the inaugural Sri Lanka Broadcasters’ Symposium held on 31 January 2019. Deputy Director General at the Thai Public Broadcasting Service (Thai PBS) Pipope Panitchpakdi was the keynote speaker at the event organised by the recently formed Broadcasters’ Guild of Sri Lanka – an industry alliance that brings together almost all players in state and private companies engaged in terrestrial radio and TV broadcasting.

Coming from another middle-income Asian country where the media market has evolved further, he offered many useful insights for our media owners, managers and broadcast journalists.

A veteran news reporter and documentary film maker putting emphasis on environmental issues and social justice, Pipope is a member of the Thailand Broadcasting Journalists Association where he was vice president from 2014 to 2016. He has been active through a process of media reforms in recent years, as well as Thailand’s transition to digital television that is underway.

PUBLIC INTEREST IS PARAMOUNT
As we approach the third decade in the 21st century, Asian broadcasters need to rise above the divide between state/public and commercial stations, Pipope said.

WE ARE BEING WATCHED BY FELLOW CITIZENS. IN THIS NEW REALITY, EGOS AND PRETENTIOUS ACTS CAN GET CALLED OUT

In any case, these demarcations are blurring as media convergence continues. Slowly but surely, audiences are moving online, even for consuming radio and TV content. To remain relevant, broadcasters will need to find innovative ways of informing and/or entertaining their audiences.

He noted, “Audiences today are more interactive and assertive. We are being watched and regularly criticised by fellow citizens (in social media). Audience members judge us as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ according to their own understanding, and many times it’s unfair by the journalists concerned – but that’s the way it is! We no longer can say that we are the gatekeepers. The gates are now wide open, and we journalists are only a part of a wider information system.”

Drawing on Thai experiences, he noted how (broadcast) journalists, newscasters and even talk show hosts are being scrutinized by audience members. In this new reality, egos can get punctured and pretentious acts called out.

“For example, field reporters often go knee or waist deep in flood waters when reporting on a disaster. Now, those who live in that area take photos and share on Facebook to show that actually, there is a dry spot where everybody else is staying – but why is this journalist trying to be dramatic? Maybe trying to boost ratings for his station, but not providing accurate information to the public…”

Another trend Pipope highlighted: how digital media is redefining the role of professional (i.e. full time, paid and institutional) journalists in tracking and analysing issues of public interest.

According to him, many digitally armed citizens are turning to ‘deeper information’ from primary sources such as experts, research institutes or think tanks. Meanwhile, some technical experts are also using social media to directly share their findings and opinions. In both processes, mainstream media is bypassed.

Media has historically been an intermediary between knowledge sources and the public, but that is no longer exclusively so. To stay in the game, professional journalists have to step up.

“We journalists can no longer get away with mediocre work – our audiences will not accept it,” Pipope acknowledged.

I asked him if the ‘end of journalism’ could happen in the foreseeable future, as claimed by some scholars. He did not agree, but stressed how ‘business as usual’ is not an option.

As he put it: “Collaboration is going to be key. We journalists have to adapt and pay more respect to our audiences. It’s no longer us giving content and audiences consuming it (passively); it’s now a two-way exchange and coexistence. I am optimistic that we will go through a big change, and that journalism will soon be more data driven. Most people now have access to lots of (raw) information, but somebody has to make sense of all this. Well-trained journalists are ideally suited for this role…”

LEARN FROM THAILAND
Thai experiences are instructive for Sri Lankan journalists and broadcasters because Thailand is ahead of the curve in at least two respects: internet use by the public and television broadcasters going digital.

According to the monitoring service ‘We Are Social’, 82% of Thais were using the internet by 2018. Another analysis (techspective.net) says that Thailand is now in the top 10 countries in terms of social media access via mobile devices and among the top 4 in the world with regards to time spent on social media in general.

With an internet user rate of around 33% of the population, Sri Lanka is well behind, but the trends are already clear: younger audiences are moving away from schedule-driven media and opting to consume broadcast and other content when, where and how they want it.

Meanwhile, Thailand has embarked on digital transition for television. It commenced in 2014 when Thai policymakers chose the world’s most widely used standard: DVB-T2, originating from Europe. The process is due to be completed in 2020, soon after which the old (analog) systems are to be switched off.

Digital television transition is a global trend where terrestrial broadcasters give up analog broadcasting to adopt digital television. Going digital offers broadcasters many advantages including more channels (by greater efficiency in using the finite spectrum), lower operating costs, and new business opportunities.

Sri Lanka marks 40 years of television broadcasting this year (ITN was launched by a private company in April 1979, and taken over by the government three months later). Most broadcasters now capture and edit their content digitally, but transmissions are still done using analog systems. Individual stations cannot make this transition as TV receivers need to make adjustments too.

As I wrote in Echelon’s December 2015 issue, the former government in 2012 chose DVB-T2, but abruptly switched to the Japanese ISDB-T standard in late 2014. After the change of government in 2015, there has been no clear policy direction and Sri Lanka remains a country that has not even announced a timetable for going digital (the process takes a few years to be completed).

LOSING AUDIENCES
If policy uncertainties about the digital transition is a worry on the horizon, Sri Lanka’s broadcasters have other concerns, here and now.

COLLABORATION IS KEY. WE JOURNALISTS HAVE TO ADAPT AND PAY MORE RESPECT TO OUR AUDIENCES

Channel proliferation has increased the choice for audiences, but how many terrestrial channels can our market realistically support? As recently as 1991, there were only three broadcasters in the country: state radio SLBC, and the state-owned TV stations Rupavahini and ITN. By 2018, we had over 20 free-to-air terrestrial TV channels and close to 50 FM channels (owned by a total of 19 entities).

All of them are competing for the same advertising revenue. High-volume advertisers use broadcast ratings to determine how to distribute their message, but ratings systems have come under fire from some broadcasters (‘Broadcast Ratings Get a Closer Look’, Echelon, August 2017). Audience fragmentation is another concern. Today, the competition is not just among terrestrial channels, but also with many Indian, Chinese, European or global channels available on subscription.

Around 30% of Sri Lanka’s television households now subscribe to a paid service for foreign channels that compete for local eyeballs, says Laksiri Wickramage, deputy chairman of Derana and secretary of the Broadcasters’ Guild. Foreign channels are received through cable, satellite or IPTV (via the internet), and that is where the real (and unfair) competition lies, he says.

What survival options are available to the local industry without curtailing audiences’ choice for local and foreign content? How can our broadcasters innovate better, as Thai broadcasters have done, to become a more mature market with plenty of niche broadcasting – benefitting from more channels enabled by the digital transition?

Another trend, also highlighted at the recent broadcast symposium, is how Tamil speaking audiences in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Central provinces prefer Tamil channels coming from southern India rather than local channels originating in Colombo or Jaffna.

Is this due to local broadcasters failing to offer adequately engaging content? Or are other cultural or market factors responsible?

These and other challenges confront the industry as its players come together on the common platform of the Broadcasters’ Guild. How they cooperate in the mutual interest would shape the future of their industry.