No more headlines at Express 24/7
By: Khurram Husain
It was the bottom of the midnight hour, somewhere around 12:55, and the anchor was getting ready to read the headlines when the HR manager walked into the master control room and asked the crew to put the channel on indefinite promos. There would be no more headlines at Express 24/7.
Unlike Dawn News, which lingered on forever through a painful process of financial restructuring including lay-offs and pay cuts before turning into another Urdu channel with screeching females vying for ratings, the end in this case was swift and decisive. It was immensely sad to stand in the midst of all the youngsters who had run the channel, some of whom had been with the team since the launch, and watch them pack up and leave. But there was no bitterness in the room. Everybody I talked to said they had seen it coming since the fact that the channel was not bringing in ratings and revenues and ads was there to see for everyone. None of them believed the management would indefinitely run the channel based on subsidies from the Urdu side and had felt that, sooner or later, it would be shut down.
Later in the day, in an ‘on-the-record’ chat, Bilal Lakhani reiterated to me that the decision was based purely on commercial reasons. Even though 24/7 enjoyed a captive audience of sorts amongst the diplomatic community – in Islamabad and abroad – he underlined that he was not interested in cultivating them as a viewership, unlike a few publications that specifically seek a readership amongst this lot. No advertiser was willing to pay for their eyeballs.
It took a lot of optimism to launch an English language news channel in February 2009, with Dawn News’ difficulties and Geo English’s dissolution as the backdrop. Now that market forces have shut down a third English language news channel, perhaps it’s a good time to reflect on their enormous role in shaping Pakistan’s media.
One thing to notice is the difficulties that all ‘niche’ channels are experiencing in Pakistan. As noted in the email that announced Express 24/7’s closure, niche channels are not viable in Pakistan without subscription revenues. English news is not the only niche that has lost the struggle to survive in the media market here. From fashion to cooking to health TV, all are in serious difficulty and will likely see closures.
That leaves us with only mass market channels in Urdu and regional languages. Now if market forces are running the show, then clearly the difference between costs and revenues is what the game is all about. Content that carries the cheapest price tag and promises to bring in the most eyeballs gets the ad money, which means more talk shows and screeching females, the cheapest kind of eyeballs there are.
Absent subscription revenues, the media is left to the play of market forces that rig the game in favour of simple formats and turbocharged sentiment as the crowd-pleasing ingredient. Soon every programme begins to look the same and a space is created for someone to ‘stand out’ by departing from the simple format of the talk show.
Enter the ‘human interest’ story. Express and Samaa have both rolled out winning programmes in that genre and Geo has taken notice. But the ‘human interest’ story presents problems of its own. For one, it’s difficult to gather the stories in large numbers, to verify the facts, to balance the narrative and ensure fairness. Properly done, the ‘human interest’ story comes with a big label on it saying ‘handle with care’, because its subject matter is delicate and complex. When required in quantity, the ‘human interest’ story becomes expensive. It takes the combined resources of all the bureaus of a major channel to sustain the appetite for such stories of a single daily show.
As the expenses of a human interest story come in, market forces again begin to stir. How to keep the costs down and the stories salacious? Here’s one idea: make the stories up, who’ll ever know and, more importantly, who’ll ever care? The ‘human interest’ story has the advantage of rarely attracting the regulators ire. But once you start making things up, you begin to brush up against the ‘entertainment’ genre and, very quickly, the question arises: why not just deal in made-up stories altogether? Instead of news dressed up as drama, why not do drama dressed up as news? Hence the renewed interest in entertainment channels and their imminent proliferation.
Once entertainment makes its debut one more time, the news channels will be left looking for a mission for themselves all over again. The search for cheap eyeballs will come full circle. In the midst of the most delectable hard news environment in the world Â— war and politics – and the approach of the mother of all news events, the elections, Pakistani media will be poised to discover the merits of hard news all over again and the cycle will repeat itself. Without subscription revenues, content comes to be churned by the volatility of the underlying ad revenues. And this churning imparts upon the industry a chaotic movement, a haphazard lunging from one fad to the next, all the while the world’s most fertile news environment throws up its daily harvest of headlines all around us.
The closure of Express 24/7 is a small event in the evolution of Pakistan’s media. The youngsters who ran that place will find other employment relatively easily. But the underlying reason for its closure has shown us all an important fault line that runs through our industry. Surviving in this ‘dismal economic environment’ can mean riding the roller coaster of volatile ad money. Or it can mean finding your place in the hard news environment that we live in.
Source: The Express Tribune