Nepali Times
Satellites link Nepali diaspora


Nepal was one of the last countries in Asia to get television in 1985. And it has become one of the last to beam its television signals via satellite. But to make up for lost time, a private broadcaster and the state-owned Nepal Television have both gone satellite in recent months, extending the reach of their signal beyond Nepal's territorial boundary to west, south and southeast Asia.
Theoretically, the Nepali diaspora from Dubai to Darwin can now access the Nepali television stations with the help of satellite dishes. For the homesick migrant worker in Kuwait to those nostalgic for Nepal in Burnei, there is suddenly a new window on Nepal.

The first to go into orbit in July was Jamim Shah's Space Time Network, Nepal's main cable operator. Shah applied for a satellite broadcast license as far back as 1993. Before anyone knew what was going on, the Ministry of Information and Communication (MOIC), under current minister Bijaya Gachchedar, had licensed three private television operators: Space Time Network and Business India TV to uplink from Nepal while Shangrila Channel was allowed to run pay TV. BiTV pulled out after India de-regulated uplinking licensing.

Few at the time believed Space Time would actually uplink from Nepal because of the logistics involved. Even today, after what has turned out to be a never ending tug-of-war with the MOIC, the network sends canned material every day to Bangkok to be uplinked via the Thaicom satellite. Shah has been in the business long enough to know what is needed to make his venture actually payoff: "I know what the market is like. If you have good programming you can sell it."
But that is a big "if". The quality of programming is the biggest bottleneck for satellite transmission to make business sense. Without quality there is no viewership, and without viewership there are no advertisers. Besides, it is more difficult to convince Nepal-based manufacturers and advertisers to buy time on satellite since the signals are received in areas where there are no immediate consumers. For instance, why should a Nepali noodle brand send signals to Malaysia? The future is in re-broadcasting satellite signals via terrestrial transmitters to broaden reach within Nepal.

Nepal Television began uplinking on 4 July, a day after Channel Nepal. NTV beamed programmes using Intelsat and the up-linking facilities at the Nepal Telecommunications Corporation's Earth Station at Balambu. NTV uses a near-obsolete satellite system, and its viewers require huge 18-ft dish antennae to receive its signals, which is impracticable for household use.

NTV says using Intelsat was the only way it could have gone satellite quickly, cheaply and without having to build its own earth station. Besides, NTV's priority is getting signals to more parts of Nepal rather than other parts of Asia. Says Durga Nath Sharma, NTV's general manager: "The existing reception has improved, especially in regions where we have terrestrial re-transmitting stations." In terms of coverage, that would be about 55 percent of the population. NTV would need 30 such re-transmitting stations to get its signals to households nationwide. At present it has just 14.

NTV accelerated its plans to go satellite after the negative publicity in Indian channels in the aftermath of the December 1999 hijack of IC814. However, having the technical capacity to broadcast is not the same as getting the viewership. And it is highly unlikely that anyone besides Nepalis abroad would bother to tune in to NTV. And even then, how are they going to afford the huge antennae? Both Space Time and NTV are therefore are looking for tie-ups with local cable operators which will include their programming.

"The most we can hope for now is that NTV's broadcasts can help to improve signals within Nepal," says Tapanath Shukla, former general manager. "I've always felt it should have used commercial satellite to make reception easy, but I am also aware of its financial compulsions." NTV also needs to upgrade programming from re-broadcast features and C-grade Hindi movies if it is going to compete with the other channels on cable. The experience is that content is king-Nepalis prefer entertainment and news in their own language, but only if it has quality, relevance and credibility. But for that to happen, NTV must be run like a television station and less as a propaganda unit and employment agency for the government of the day.

Even though it is a private broadcaster, Channel Nepal is not doing much better. Its news, current affairs and timeless features are canned, they are repeated frequently and lack freshness. Most of the daily six hours of programming is entertainment-which in Nepal has become synonymous with hurriedly produced music videos, movie roundups and archive films.

Channel Nepal's Shah is aware of the problem, but says he can only begin to solve it when he is allowed to uplink from Nepal. "So far, I think I have put in 38 applications asking MOIC to inspect my equipment and allow me to uplink," he told us. "I am just waiting to press the switch. Everything is ready." Shah plans to invest as much as Rs 100 million each year to produce eight hours of

Channel Nepal had planned to begin broadcasting from Nepali New Year on 14 April this year, but was stopped from by a last-minute MOIC order. The excuse: not paying its dues and squatting on the licence. A cabinet reshuffle that came after the decision saw a change in ministers and Shah was back with his licence-after petitioning the prime minister's office and getting it to override the MOIC decision.
The dramatic revocation of licence and the re-licensing attracted the attention of the Committee for the Investigation for the Abuse of Authority, which is now investigating the decisions. Jaya Prakash Prasad Gupta, who revoked Channel Nepal's licence and resigned when the station was re-licensed, is back as Minister of Information and Communication. It is no secret that Shah and Gupta, once close allies, have had a falling out. Shah has figured in a colntroversial Indian intelligence list of Pakistani ISI agents in Nepal, and there has been behind-the-scenes Indian lobbying against Shah getting an uplinking license.

Despite all this, Nepalis abroad are delighted that they can now watch music videos, news and features from their home country. Even Nepalis in Burma tune in regularly. Thakur Prasad Guragain, the Burmese writer in Nepali, says: "We are happy to get programmes in Nepali. Channel Nepal, zindabad." His only gripe is that Nepalis in Mandalay cannot get NTV because they don't have a large-enough antenna.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)