Last September in the margins of the UN General Assembly Session in New York the President of Turkey and Prime Ministers of Pakistan and Malaysia met and agreed to launch a joint TV channel to counter the rising trend of Islamophobia in the US and Europe by bringing the rich heritage of Islam to their viewers’ homes, and promoting the values of keeping faith, tolerance, family responsibility, rule of law, justice and human rights within the Muslim community globally.
Every year, dozens of high-level meetings take place in the margins of the UNGA which draw media headlines at the spur of the moment but with no subsequent follow up or results. However, this was not a meeting for a cheap photo opportunity. The popular TRT series Dirilis Ertugrul recorded one million new subscribers on YouTube in the two weeks since its release on Pakistan state TV on 1st Ramadan. http://[https://www.aa.com.tr/en/culture/turkish-tv-series-set-to-break-youtube-record/1835014]. Although Turkish TV dramas are popular in many Islamic countries and have been dubbed in many languages, this is the first time a state broadcaster has been asked by its Head of Government to air the series and given the public an opportunity to watch it in their own language in line with the spirit of the New York meeting.
Turkey’s public national broadcaster TRT is well placed to give a practical meaning to the idea of forging a coalition of Islamic countries’ TV broadcasters, starting first with Pakistan and Malaysia and then adding others, with a view to bringing their cumulative resources on one platform and to start an international TV channel that captures the rich heritage of Islamic civilisation worldwide. To reach a global audience, the medium of this new channel will need to be English, with all programmes recorded, dubbed or subtitled in this language. English is widely understood in the parts of the world where the problem of Islamophobia is most prominent.
TRT TV has many digital TV channels which focus on news, traditional music, dramas and documentary feature films. Some of these are also aired in other languages on satellites signals in Europe, Central Asia and the Middle East. Its international news channel, TRT World, is watched in millions of households all over the world on TV and mobile devices. But all of these channels focus on Turkey reaching out to its expatriates and friends abroad and reporting on matters which are important to discuss from its national perspective. A quality TV channel which promotes the interests of multiple state players joined by a common objective is still very much lacking in the current scenario.
In starting a new TV channel the main requirement is content because in a 24/7 broadcasting range, content flows like a roaring river. A TV content must remain fresh and continuous in order to capture and retain the interest of viewers. Usually repeat programmes lose old audiences. News coverage can provide some fresh content on a daily basis but a new news channel was not what the Summit of the Three visualised in New York last year. Besides, there is no point adding one more Muslim news channel to the list of successful channels already operating globally such as Aljazeera, TRT World and Arab News TV.
From the content point of view, if the resources of three countries are pooled together, there will be no deficit of material. What will be required is converting most of the existing comedy, cultural dramas and documentaries into English for a global audience. But only one broadcaster should have the coordinating role to frame rules for ensuring balance and standardisation. TRT is well placed both in terms of resources and content to take a lead role, working in coordination with PTV in Pakistan and RTM TV1 in Malaysia.
In parallel with this work, the telecommunication authorities in the three countries should agree to allocate at least two transponders on their national satellites to enable their national public to watch foreign broadcasts of the partner countries in their homes. For example Turkey can allocate one transponder to PTV World and one to RTM TV1 on TRT satellite to enable Turkish and foreign viewers in Turkey to watch the programmes of these channels. In return, Pakistan should allocate two transponders on Pak Sat to TRT World and RTM TV1 for Pakistani viewers to be able to watch Turkish and Malaysian state TVs. Similarly, Malaysia can enable PTV World and TRT World to reach its domestic viewers through Malaysian state satellite. This will, of course, require a trilateral agreement between the telecommunication authorities to mutually extend these facilities to each other on a reciprocal basis.
This will also require necessary provisions in these agreements to comply with the international principle of not using another country’s territory or resources, in this case national satellite, to attack a third country with which the host country enjoys good relations. Another thing to watch will be the nature of programme coverage of the country’s home broadcaster because if it’s programmes do not appeal to a broader international audience, it will find its viewership decline to the extent of threatening the viability of the bigger project.
A bulk of TV viewers in all the three countries comprises of cable TV subscribers. This is not only a smart way of avoiding ugly dish installations at roof tops but also a safer option. However, in cable TV, the choice of selecting TV channels for viewing packages rests with the cable provider and not with the viewer. The broadcasting regulator governing the operation of cable TV in the three countries should make it obligatory for its cable TV providers as a requirement of securing licence that they will not obstruct the TV broadcasts of the partner countries in their cable coverage, or charge their subscribers additionally for viewing these channels.
With the development of IPTV, the digital TV packages offered by PTCL in Pakistan, Turk Cell in Turkey and the state IPTV provider in Malaysia should ensure that their IPTV Apps include the designated TV channels from partner countries as part of their free local TV package.
The vision that came out from the New York meeting of the three leaders last year is not something that can be translated in six months to a year. It requires some serious ground work to draw up the TORs of the project; the individual responsibilities three countries should mutually share to dub existing programmes and produce new ones; and buy in the commitment of private sponsors to finance the project successfully.
The project should also be launched in two stages. By next September, the three countries should finalise an agreement to host the state broadcasters of each country on their national satellites for access by their public. The second stage in the project should be the launch of a global TV, with the three countries providing the backbone of its content and mutually hosting it on all those regional satellites where they have ownership or beaming rights. Overtime, as progress is made, more countries can be added, as the coalition of the willing in the Islamic world is strengthened.
The old Chinese saying: “the journey of a thousand miles starts with a first step” is a time tested truth. Pakistan has taken the first step with the official viewing of Ertugrul in Pakistan. The next steps will follow.
* Mr Syed Sharfuddin is a former Pakistan diplomat and a former CEO of Muslim Aid UK.