Recently, a senior news editor of a private television channel and some of his colleagues received termination letters when they were on duty. He does not know what his fault was or the reasons for terminating his other colleagues. Without any prior notice, more than a dozen reporters and newsroom editors of another channel were asked to resign with or without the cheques covering three months' pay. In most cases, media employees opted out without a legal battle with the owners.
After years of growth, Bangladesh's television sector is facing a slowdown that has led to pay cuts in many channels, and shutdown of news operations in at least one channel. It is against this backdrop that the media community is observing the United Nations (UN) World Television Day today (November 21). The day recognises that television plays a major role in presenting different issues that affect people. But what television offers in Bangladesh now is a big question for television viewers themselves.
The situation is really bad everywhere. Employees have not been paid for months in many companies. A survey done by the Broadcast Journalists' Centre revealed that the annual increment was suspended for two to five years in at least 18 private television channels. Salaries are not paid regularly in eight to ten channels, of which some of them are not paying salaries for months altogether. Out of 30 private channels, 28 have no policy of gratuity and provident funds for employees.
What went wrong? To get the answer, we can look at the development of private television stations in Bangladesh. From only one state-run channel two decades ago, the country's media landscape has completely changed with nearly 35 channels now offering 24/7 news and entertainment shows. People who were in the business of selling commodity items have opened up news channels. They did not think about their business model. They wanted media influence to safeguard their commercial interests.
As news and entertainment channels flourished, new jobs were created for journalists, actors, technicians, graphic designers, video editors and programme makers. That boom was one of the positive outcomes of the country's growing economy, as companies began to spend a good amount of money on television advertisements. Now this sector is facing hard times.
The media sector in Bangladesh has grown enormously in terms of volume and influence over the last two decades. From virtually a solid state-owned broadcast sector at the turn of the century, the sector has jumped into a dissonant landscape of so many private TV channels. This change has been aided by the integration of newer technologies in the information landscape.
People were habituated to live coverage of any happening moment and people used to enjoy multiple opinions in the TV talk shows. As choices for the people have bloomed in terms of variety, quantity and quality of informational fare on offer because of the strong presence of the digital platform, the television here today is in a multifarious crisis of major proportions. Television in Bangladesh today is actually less loved than it was nearly a decade ago.
Just like the rise of multi-channel current affairs television sidelined print media about 20 years ago, the rise of the internet and social media — popular among a largely adult but mostly young population — has overtaken TV as one of the key sources of news, information and entertainment. This is toppling the broadcast market and threatening jobs in mainstream media and shaking up existing business.
Television channels are no longer making the money they did a few years ago. There are now 34 TV channels (news and entertainment) and a number of radio stations in the country. More TV channels are in the pipeline. Even big and stable channels are retrenching their workforce to survive in a bad market. Those who used to put advertisements on TV are content makers themselves, while typical FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) business houses are increasingly turning to Facebook and YouTube to display their products.
Pay cuts are rife now. It is true that the entry of big business groups had benefited a certain class of journalists, who earned huge salaries and benefits. Their lifestyle attracted thousands of young people to this profession. A huge number of public and private universities established media studies and journalism departments since 2005 to cope with the needs of the booming industry. But only a few channels manage to pay salaries on time today.
The television sector is looking definitively unstable. The business model of ownership being concentrated in the hands of politically connected investors has failed. This has resulted in compromising the quality of journalism and journalists and the rise of self-censorship.
Jobs in the television sector are no longer attractive to young graduates because of poor and irregular pay, and the absence of a career path. Eroding credibility, a changing market and outdated information and media policies, need to be addressed properly. We will have to seriously think in terms of inventing a new model of media ownership which can build the media as an industry, as opposed to focusing narrowly on their own socio-economic interests only.
Syed Ishtiaque Reza, Editor in Chief, GTV and sarabangla.net