By Robert Keith-Reid

SUVA, Fiji (Islands Business, December) – The number of letters critical of Fiji Television Limited (Fiji TV) published by local newspapers makes something rather clear: Thousands of television watchers yearn for the choice of a rival free-to-air channel.

Free-to-air means you don't pay for what you watch.

Officially, Fiji TV doesn't have a monopoly, it once had. It surrendered it in return for being allowed to run liquor advertisements.

Actually, Fiji TV does enjoy a monopoly, of sorts. The Qarase government, which has conflicting ideas about the desirability of competition, is dilly-dallying over a decision on an application for a free-to-air licence by an Australian-led company, TV2.

Public Broadcasting Services, an arm of Ba Provincial Holdings, which runs a 14-channel pay-TV business with programmes relayed from Australia, also wants a free-to-air service.

Its chief executive, Apolosi Bose, says the government is "very protective" of Fiji TV.

What TV2 is offering in the way of local programmes and varied programme content would be a big worry for Fiji TV. Some of Fiji TV's critics speculate that the government's motive in keeping TV2 dangling in suspense is a desire to protect the hefty profits Fiji TV is making for its owners.

TV2 says that two former ministers for broadcasting, the late Dr Ahmed Ali and Simione Kaitani, expressed support for its proposal.

While Fiji TV has declared another year of fat tax free profit of $4.435 million for the year ending last June, TV2 is being kept waiting, waiting and waiting for a decision on its application.

The government says it is having a big think about television policy, including programme content.

Some of Fiji TV's critics speculate that the government's motive in keeping TV2 dangling in suspense is a desire to protect the hefty profits Fiji TV is making for its owners.

Significantly, those are led by Yasana Holdings Ltd, the 51% shareholders of an investment company set up by government for the 14 Fijian provinces. It was handed its controlling interest in Fiji Television on a plate. The government has a 14% stake it now says it intends to sell.

The third largest shareholder is tycoon Hari Punja, also the major shareholder in another broadcasting company, Communications Fiji.

Prime Minister Laisenia Qarase was Fiji TV's first chairman. He is on record as bitterly complaining about the quality of Fiji TV programmes. But he is also on record as saying in 2000 that "there will be no new TV station" despite a Commerce Commission recommendation that there should be.

In May 2005, after TV2 had put in about 250 pages more in support of an application first made in 1999, the Prime Minister told parliament that the company was "not forthcoming with necessary information."

This was in complete contrast to the opinion of then information minister Dr Ali, who said he and his ministry were satisfied with input from TV2 and didn't need any more information.

New criteria

TV2, waiting and waiting for a decision, has now written to the present information minister, Marieta Rigamoto, asking about the new "criteria" she says she is developing to give "new players and Fiji TV a level playing field".

Ken Stratton, the Australian businessman leading the TV2 bid, told FIJI ISLANDS BUSINESS he wonders how there can be a level playing field when "Fiji TV enjoys tax-free status, exemptions on import duties and VAT, none of which TV2 will be seeking".

He is sceptical about the information ministry's November announcement that it would open a Fijian and Rotuman language television service with $70,000 worth of equipment donated by Japan.

"What was that? One Betacam/VCR? A videocassette machine? A camera? Any one of those would cost around $70,000. It won't get far with $70,000. You need to multiply that by 200."

Despite its Fijian establishment connections, the station was annoyed when Opposition Leader, Mahendra Chaudhry, last month accused it of being biased politically in favour of the government.

Its best local feature, the evening news, has no qualms about running stories criticising the government; and also Chaudhry and the Fiji Labour Party, which says that as government it would issue free-to-air licence.

Who is TV2 and what is it offering?

The company's directors are Stratton, whose television career began in Australia in the early 1960s; local businessman, Mike Brook; Herbert Lilburn, another Australian and TV2's director of engineering; Sigatoka resident Bernie Tsao, an engineer, educator and aquaculture expert; and Ratu Lavisai Kabakoro, of Cakaudrove, who is involved in a family learning centre with Open Doors Village Projects.

Local ownership

Stratton and Lilburn display impressive records in the Australian radio and television broadcasting industries.

Stratton says TV2 will have 80% local ownership, which is in line with government's media ownership and control policy.

He says TV2 has offered 20% shareholdings, with shares to be paid from future profits, while also receiving a partial cash dividend, to Ulaiasi Taoi, president of the Fiji Indigenous Business Council; Ratu Jo Nawalowalo, president of the Kadavu Provincial Council; and Taito Waradi, of the Fiji Chamber of Commerce an Industry. But "there were no takers."

"Other prominent businesspeople are keen to be involved but are no able to 'salute the flag' until a licence is granted. These include a major shipping operator, a well-known academic, a well-known USP economist and a partner in a major Fiji accountancy firm."

What kind of television is TV2 offering?

What it doesn't want is a pay/community channel licence it says was offered to it verbally by information minister Rigamoto.

"We have rejected that proposal on the grounds of financial viability and lack of satellite capacity for a 12-15 channel pay service, Stratton says.

Technically, " we will operate in a similar way to Fiji TV. Our programme signal will be relayed from our Suva Broadcast Centre to terrestrial transmitters throughout Suva and Rotuma, via satellite.

"We will have Supertext Closed Captioning for the hearing impaired. In other words, almost all programmes will have subtitles but these will not be visible to ordinary viewers.

They will be available on teletext-equipped receivers, or viewers will be able to buy, at low cost, a small box that connects to their TV set. The subtitles appear just like conventional subtitled programmes when selected.

"We will have the technical ability to offer different programming in several different areas at the same time.

"This facility will be used to deliver community news into different regions, such as the west, the Suva area, and Vanua Levu.

"We will be able to offer advertisers "local" commercial time at "local" commercial rates, giving small businesses access to affordable television advertising for the first time.

"We will bring television to areas that currently do not have any free-to-air service. One of these will be Lau. In October, Lau provincial delegates questioned why the island group has no TV service.

"Delegates raised their concerns about not having the privilege to Fiji TV services saying they offered a site on Lakeba where a satellite dish could be set up.

"Fijian Affairs Board chief executive officer Adi Litia Qionibaravi, a Fiji TV board director, told the meeting that television came at an extra cost to the company given the remoteness of the islands.

"One has to ask who the Fijian Affairs CEO represents-Fijian affairs or the interests of Fiji Television Limited? Clearly the latter.

"According to TV2 engineers and consultants, the cost of establishing a receiving/transmission facility at Lakeba, or elsewhere, is F$12,500-or less than one hour's prime-time advertising revenue from Fiji TV

What about TV2 programmes?

"We don't want to say who our programme suppliers will be," Stratton says, "however I can say that we have already signed two contracts with Hallmark Entertainment for rights to some one hundred features, mini-series and series.

Credible plans

"We also have rights to a library of more than 300 feature films. We have signed contracts for the delivery every day of educational, information, current events and news magazine, children's health, cooking and lifestyle programmes. These will provide the bulk of our day-time programmes.

"TV2 has credible plans to address many social and lifestyle issues every day. Very basic skills such as learning to cook sensibly and within a low budget (since 21% of the population suffers from diabetes, diets are important), hygiene and environmental programmes, how to eliminate mosquitoes which cause dengue, malaria and other diseases, water and boating safety, road safety, breast cancer detection, cancers in general, ophthalmic problems, asthma, literacy, and how to set up small businesses programmes to bridge the religious differences-to list but a few subjects.

"These are the programmes that are so badly needed in Fiji but are simply not broadcast by either Fiji TV or PBS.

"When was the last time you saw a programme on diabetes, healthy living or preventative diets on Fiji television?

Stratton says claims that local programmes are too costly to produce are "nonsense."

"Local programmes are not expensive to produce. It depends on the type and format of the programme."

What about prime-time educational and information programmes?

"Every week there will be a one-hour science programme, a National Geographic feature, another hour from producers of Discovery Channel documentaries, an international current affairs feature and a locally-produced current affairs magazine-style programme.

"Our current affairs programmes will not be produced for us by the Ministry of Information.

"They will be produced by the station's own journalists and by independent contributors.

"We will produce a half-hour "Meet the Press" type programme where a rotating panel of journalists will quiz someone on a news topic of the week.

Local content

"To say these programmes can't compete against American programmes such as "CSI" is incorrect.

"These programmes, broadcast every week on Australian commercial television, consistently rate in the top 50 most-watched programmes, ahead of most American drama series.

"Our hard news will come from Reuters, APTN and CNN. We will have regional news services, details of which we don't want to reveal at this time. Locally, we will have an extensive network of newsgathering facilities.

"On the "community access" angle, we will run several news and information brief programmes each day featuring community news and events.

Is there enough local content? Fiji TV contends that daily local content of its free-to-air service averages 30%.

Stratton disagrees. "I have gone over Fiji TV's schedule several different ways.

"Based on their 24/7 operation they run 168 hours. They don't like this calculation as they say on their website that ABC programmes from midnight to 2pm are not really "programmes" but "wallpaper".

"Giving them credit for all programmes produced by the Ministry of Information, all of their five-minute segments, their news hour and half-hour, their afternoon kids' hustings and all of their programme reruns (Fiji This Week, Jharoka, Close Up, IQ Active) I get a total of 19 hours out of 168 hours. That's 11.6%.

"Based on 75 hours, being the "non-ABC" hours, then 19 out of 75 equals 25%. Of course, this second calculation is flawed, as they can't discount their ABC programmes as not being "programmes."

"They can't include commercial time, as that time is for "commercials", not "programme".

Stratton recalls that prime minister scathingly denounced Fiji Television programmes during a conference of the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association in Nadi in February 2004.

He complained that the station was contributing to a "rushing deluge of westernisation" on television.

"I am convinced that the rise of promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases and accidental teenage pregnancies, is directly linked to the influence of the media," Qarase told during the opening ceremony.

"Young, impressionable minds are fed a diet heavy with sex and violence.

"I am not happy with the company's current programming policies," he said.

"Fiji Television stays mostly silent and aloof. It appears to be reluctant to publicly explain itself, even as the public criticism mounts."

Stratton says what TV2 will not be broadcasting is of interest.

"There will be no after school animated cartoon programmes. Those hours will be devoted to family drama, educational and information programmes.

"No foreign programmes will be broadcast unpreviewed, as happens now. No music promotional programmes, such as the greatly criticised "Power Jammers", will be broadcast. More worthwhile programming will be offered."

Stratton recalls: "The prime minister has stated publicly that "the interests of Fiji TV come first".

This statement aside, PBS, an Australian-owned and controlled "pay service" was established and has subsequently been granted a broadcast licence. PBS is in direct competition with Fiji TV's Sky "pay" services. The competition has had no effect on Fiji TV's profit growth nor on Fiji TV's share price.

Programme cost

"Similarly, TV2 will have no effect on Fiji TV's profits or share price. TV2 will generate advertising revenue from new advertisers (primarily through our "localised" advertising concept), through the growth of advertising generally, from which Fiji TV will benefit, and from existing advertisers who will advertise on both stations.

"We do not expect many advertisers will switch from Fiji TV to TV2 exclusively."

Fiji TV complains in its 2005 Annual Report that "programme costs have increased due to the arrival of PBS".

"TV2 will not have any effect on programme costs for Fiji TV. We will never enter into a price war or auction. There are more than enough programmes and distributors available to us to fill our needs with the right programmes at the right price. Currently, Fiji TV does not deal with 90% of our proposed programme suppliers."

Minister Rigamoto says government has "reiterated its commitment to deregulate the television industry". This, she said, was evident in the awarding of a TV licence to Western Broadcasting Services Limited.

This licence is for a non-commercial community channel that will only be available to subscribers to "pay" service.

He says the company plans to offer local programme content through its Western Broadcasting Services from early 2006, relaying it to Australia for transmission on the satellite for its pay-TV service.

"We want a free-to-air service and we are in the market for equipment for it."

Bose says the service would initially be limited to the Lautoka/Nadi/Ba region.

The PBS pay-TV service will soon feature a channel aimed at the 60,000 strong Muslim community, he says.

December 9, 2005

Islands Business Magazine: http://www.islandsbusiness.com

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