TONGA TV STICKS WITH ISLAND IDENTITY

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By Erin Phelan

SUVA, Fiji Islands (July 31, 2000 - PINA Nius Online)---There's a new player in television in the Pacific. Not Turner Broadcasting or Time Warner, but Tonga TV.

Tonga TV became the second television broadcasting unit in the Kingdom on July 4th, 2000. The launch was timed to honor King Taufa‘ahau Tupou IV’s birthday. In typical island style, the inaugural broadcast came together in the last moments before going on the air, after weeks of practice, months of preparation and years of planning.

Conrad Mill, team leader and television specialist in the media center at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, arrived from Fiji to assist one week before the launch.

"I have to admit, when I first arrived I felt very uneasy. They hadn't gotten their transmission mast up yet, some things weren't done and they were going on air within the week," says Mill. "At first I thought it wouldn't work, but they are a great team, and it came together nicely."

The team - lead by chief executive of the Tonga Broadcasting Commission, Tavake Fusimalohi, and editor Nanise Fifita - are juggling their duties between radio and television. Whereas in other parts of the world a new medium means new jobs, in the Pacific a new medium usually means more work for staff.

"It is a bit of stress for the staff, doing both radio and television right now," concedes Fusimalohi. "It is a matter of trial and error, and proper time management. We're learning as we go along. At the moment, everyone is still very excited about the new venture. Nanise is very resourceful, and a great team leader."

The long road began in 1984, when Tonga Broadcasting Commission (TBC) was given the mandate from government to set up a television station. However, the project was frozen several times, and only last year did Fusimalohi receive the go-ahead to realize the dream.

Since the green light was granted, the Tonga TV team has been provided with extensive training, courtesy of the Pacific Islands News Association (PINA), SPC, the French embassy and AusAID. Last year, Laumanu Petelo, now the news anchor for Tonga TV, attended a workshop in French Polynesia on presenting news for television.

"One sees the fruition of PINA's vision," says Fusimalohi. "Laumanu is our main television star here, as a result of the PINA training. If you give more of our staff training, PINA could be the producer of many TV stars in Tonga!"

Fusimalohi says that there are indications that viewership is high for the local news, and attributes this to their objective of producing "proper TV" with a news anchor and actualities - stories done in the field.

Mill and camera specialist Aren Baoa were brought in to "get them on the air" says Mill, and provided help in the form of on-the-job production training, running through mock newscasts and other fine-tuning details.

"Their previous training really showed. I thought that the newscasts were very professional. Their biggest challenge will be to maintain the momentum," says Mill.

Tonga TV is currently on-air five hours a day, with two news bulletins – one in the vernacular language and one in English. Originally, the news staff was producing 30-minute bulletins, but work pressures have reduced the news to 15 minutes per broadcast. They are running locally-produced and regional documentaries, discussion shows, and regional programs such as the SPC's 'Pacific Way,' and Fiji's Ministry of Information's 'Dateline.' They also subscribe to sporting events such as the Tri-Nations’ rugby coverage.

It isn't likely that Tonga will be, like many of its Pacific neighbors, saturated with American, Australian and Kiwi programming. Instead, they have set their ambitions high at Tonga TV - to have 80 percent local content.

Fusimalohi says the reasons for this are both economic and cultural. They can't afford overseas rights for programs, and they want to promote Tongan identity by producing Tongan programs.

"People like to see what is local. They want to see landmark things with their traditions. It gives Tonga a sense of identity. We're trying to maintain a professional standard, and also maintain local flavor of the islands," says Fusimalohi.

Though 80 percent local content is ambitious, Tonga Broadcasting Commission has a solid track record indicating it can be done. Mill says they are a fine example for the region: "Radio Tonga has a great history of local content. They are enormously active in their broadcasts of events in Tonga. But with television, it takes a lot more resources, and it might take longer," Mill cautions.

Tonga Broadcasting Commission was the first public or government broadcaster in the region to turn a profit. Fusimalohi's vision helped to start a radio shop, where local residents purchase equipment - from radios to VCRs – that are guaranteed service by TBC technicians, the most qualified in the country.

They are following a similar path with television, already producing advertisements for local businesses as a means of generating revenue. The added revenue will be poured back into producing good-quality, locally-driven television - Tonga TV for Tongans.

Fusimalohi believes that this is central to national pride and identity.

"If Fiji One had produced more Indian and Fijian shows, you might not have had the coup," quips Fusimalohi.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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