Just when you thought you couldn't handle any more television channels from your cable provider, comes word of six more Nepali stations coming on stream in the next few months.
Kantipur Television, Image, Shangrila, Nepal One, NTV Metro Channel, and Avenues TV are going into full-scale production soon. This, despite serious doubts that the advertising industry can sustain so many new players, concerns about original content to fill air time, and the stranglehold that cable providers have on distribution.
Nepal's advertising industry presently has an annual turnover of Rs 200 million, and this now has to be shared between two existing television channels, six new ones, more than two dozen FM stations and the print media. "The current advertisement volume can support only three to four TV portals for now," says Suraj Bikram Shah at Thompson Nepal.
The foremost challenge for the new stations is to be able to reach their viewers, and for this they will have to negotiate with the cable operators. Kantipur, Image and Metro will be terrestrial broadcasters while Avenues, Shangrila and Nepal One will beam down via satellite. But either way, they need to get their signals into the cable network, since viewers find it tedious to disconnect the cable back and forth to a dish outlet or a rabbit-ear antenna.
Although there are 160 cable operators in the country, the number one Space Time Network controls most of the market and even owns its own station, Channel Nepal. Space Time is therefore driving a hard bargain to give competing channels access to its network. And once a station strikes a deal with a cable operator, chances for other channels to use the same medium becomes even less likely.
Since each household usually subscribes to only one cable network, new television channels grabbing hold of different networks would divide viewership and dilute impact for advertisers. Realising this, big boys like Space Time and Shangrila are frantically widening their cable or wireless networks.
Just like international channels negotiate with local cable providers to expand viewership in Nepal, on-air stations NTV and Channel Nepal have been distributing through local cable providers across northeast India, and they are looking at coverage in the Gulf and Hong Kong. "We will be going through cable operators in India to reach Nepali viewers in India," says Neer Shah, whose Shangrila Channel plans to go on air by June.
While Nepali channels look for Indian viewers, Indian channels are looking for audiences in Nepal. The Indian-owned Nepal One channel has already started uplinking via satellite to Nepal with news and footage of King Gyanendra's pilgrimage to south India. Nepal One executives say they want to tap into Indian advertisers selling consumer goods in Nepal. But for that it needs to first get viewers in Nepal, for which the cable providers have the key. "Nepal One is aggressively wooing cable operators and giving away free digital boxes," confided an engineer with a local cable operator.
Avenues TV is taking on a different tack: think small and provide high quality information to a widely disperse audience of the Nepali diaspora in 30 coutnries. Bhaskar Rajkarnikar of Avenues told us: "We willstart small, so we have no worries about getting returns on our investment." Rajkarnikar calculates that the television advertising market will grow at 35 percent per year, and he hopes to snare a five percent share of that.
The big boys, on the other hand, will need a bigger slice of that pie. Kantipur Television has tied up with Nepali-Russian investors to go into terrestrial broadcasting in a big way with news-based programming. "We believe the Nepal market is big enough for us," says Jiva Lamichhane of Kantipur, which hopes to begin broadcasts in Kathmandu later this month.
"The cake will grow, but the question is, will it grow fast enough so everyone can have a comfortable slice?" asks SP Singh, media marketer with SAMA Printers. Thomson's Shah is doubtful. "The economy is down, and when the economy is down the first thing to get slashed is the marketting budget," he says. The biggest advertiser on television is Nepal Lever, which had an ad budget of Rs 50 million a year till two years ago. Today, according to insiders, that figure is down to Rs 10 million.
The newcomers know this, yet they are still investing huge sums in the new channels. Even Neer Shah admits: "With so many characters already in it, this venture is not all that feasibile." Shah says he doesn't depend much on advertisers, his income comes from his cable clients.
What the consumers hope is that with greater competition, the quality of programming will also improve. But if the deregulation of the domestic airline industry is any guide, it may mean undercutting and cut-throat competition will only bring shoddy service.
Only 18 percent of Nepalis have access to electricity, but even among them few can afford to buy television sets. Television will therefore continue to be an urban-centric medium and its content will reflect this.
But there are no regulators ensuring that the content is public service-oriented, that commercials do not exploit children, or to enforce the rule that a certain proportion of the content should be wholesome edutainment.
"Covering development, gender and children issues, among others, must be made mandatory and a regulatory body must monitor broadcasts," says media analyst P Kharel. But in the free-for-all commercial environment in broadcasting, it looks like competition will not necessarily guarantee quality.
Nepal Television Metro Channel transmission tower in Singha Darbar.