There was a time when every household in Bangladesh that possessed a TV would tune in to Bangladesh Television (BTV) at certain hours of the day.
But today there are few good reasons to make people switch over to BTV: no “Kothau Keu Nei”, “Aj Robibar”, “Bohubrihi”, “McGyver” or “Knight Rider.”
The prominence of BTV was partly due to the market monopoly and the content quality. But gradually BTV lost much of its prestige, largely to accusations of being a political mouthpiece and the downward spiral of content quality.
The advent of private TV channels broke the monopolistic grip BTV had on every TV screen in Bangladesh. The few viewers who still watch BTV today have no other options.
BTV Director General SM Harun Ur Rashid accepted that BTV viewership has declined, but blamed the fall on social media.
“People watch less TV these days and spend more time on social media,” he told the Dhaka Tribune. “But we are going to offer them alternative content. We will have five-dimensional, seven-dimensional programs which will be shared on Facebook and YouTube too.”
A recent survey by Bangladesh Cable TV Viewers Forum reported that only 25% to 30% of the total Bangladeshi audience watch local TV channels. Out of which, BTV has the lowest number of audience. The state-owned TV channel has nearly no audience in the urban areas; most viewers are located in rural areas where there is no alternative.
In the village of Matlab Chandpur in Gazipur, there is no grid electricity so locals use solar power to meet their needs. As such, they only have access to the terrestrial network of BTV.
The villagers have no interest in watching BTV, reiterating the declining quality. Residents of the neighbouring village of Matlab Bazar concur. They too were once forced to watch BTV until electricity and cable television provided an escape.
But why is BTV the subject of such disdain? There is a near-unanimous stance against BTV, all of them eschewing the politicization and the content quality.
Why BTV failed
A senior BTV staff member who declined to be named said a partisan approach had hit viewing figures.
“Throughout the history of Bangladesh, every government institution has always stayed their course, in spite of political machinations. But BTV is the only instrument which has remained notorious for being a political mouthpiece,” the BTV staffer said.
According to many current and former disgruntled employees, a select group of veterans at the station have turned the workplace “toxic”. Constant politicization, especially in news, has seen effective monopolies of power pooled by people who have been working at the channel for 20-25 years.
Many skilled staff members who hoped to stay at BTV for their entire careers have been forced to leave due to a Machiavellian culture.
28% of BTV jobs unfilled
The Ministry of Information says BTV has 1,723 posts and 483 vacancies.
BTV authorities claim they require 399 new posts to be created for the Dhaka center and 342 posts for the Chittagong center to be fully functional. However, they would rather see the hiring made through cadres instead of through the Public Service Commission.
Assistant Director (Administration) Nasim Uj Zaman said there is no recruitment guideline and admitted the existing procedure through PSC is “expensive and time-consuming”. He also claimed recruitment notices are issued only when there are too many vacancies.
Prof AJM Shafiul Alam Bhuiyan, Department of Television, Film and Photography from Dhaka University, expressed his surprise at the high number of vacancies.
“We have thousands of media graduates from all the universities. BTV could fill the vacancies with these talented people and cut down unemployment rates,” he said.
He also agreed that recruitment should be made through cadres and not PSC. He urged for a fresh structure in the TV channel.
Prof Shafiul also said BTV should look to BBC as a model for state-owned broadcast media. “BBC serves the public interest, not political agendas. It needs to be autonomous,” he added.
At BTV, deputization is the law of the land. Although introduced as a temporary solution, most deputized staff members have found themselves working for years without end.
Deputy Director (Administration) Helal Kabir said: “The senior posts have been vacant for a long time because they are deeply contextualized.”
Helal claimed the Ministry of Public Administration has been delaying for over a year to provide them with adequate staff.
Now, BTV has more 18 hours to broadcast with the same number of staff used for the six hours of broadcasting.
BTV by the numbers – ads, revenues and expenses
Although it has been common knowledge, Bangladesh Television data confirms that the government has been subsidizing the station for many years.
BTV earned Tk7.5 crore in licensing fees in 2016, around Tk50 lakh more than their set target. For 2017, the state-run TV channel has aimed a licensing revenue target of Tk8 crore, in spite of the fall in advertising.
Joint Secretary and Deputy Director General (Program) Surath Sumar Sarkar said: “About 90-95% of our income is from advertisements. Once we had more ads than we could air. Now they flock to cable channels which charge less and have a wider reach. These days we get around 3-4 ads per day.”
He said BTV now only provides six minutes of airtime for ads, a steep fall from the 30-40 minutes it used to offer. This is all in stark contrast to the current 18 hours of broadcasting from the previous six hours.
Regardless, the government subsidizes BTV and pays all the staff. An increase in the licensing fee is a preferred option if subsidies are to be reduced.
Lack of autonomy, blight of creativity
According to BTV officials, the 80s and the 90s was the heyday of the state-run TV channel, with some of the brightest and most creative visionaries at the helm.
Now, there is a dearth of creative minds at BTV. Bureaucrats run amok in every section, from news and programming to advertising and finance.
A senior staff member said BTV has had 35 director generals since 1972, almost all of whom have been transferred by the time they grew acquainted with BTV and its operations.
Former deputy director general Shahida Alam said: “A deputy director cannot stay longer than three months. Why? Because of politics.”
Shahida Alam also noted the lack of planning and accountability at BTV during her 1980-2008 tenure.
She said at the height of the anti-Ershad movement, there was public clamouring for BTV and Bangladesh Betar to be autonomous entities. But after the dictator was overthrown in 1990, the talk subsided and they remained as government mouthpieces.
Shahida Alam also said the technologies in the 80s were cutting-edge in the country at the time, but the same obsolete technology is being used after 30 years when every other channel is using vastly superior technology.
BTV librarian Shamsunnahar Khanam has been performing the twin role of archivist since 2000, even though the specialist role was introduced in 2003.
She revealed the poor condition of newsreels and programmes since the Liberation War, and blamed poor curation and an inability to transfer them to modern storage devices. There is not even an exact number of how many cassettes or programs are in the BTV archives.
A new BTV on the horizon
There are plans to build six TV centers at Rangpur, Rajshahi, Khulna, Sylhet, Barisal and Mymensingh. China will be providing Tk1,000 crore in loans, with the government spending Tk400 crore already earmarked by the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council.
On the subject of recruitment, BTV Director General SM Harun Ur Rashid said BTV adheres to the government policies while accepting that BTV lacks mostly in producers and engineers.
He also said BTV is undergoing a massive technological overhaul – one major project involving automation and another involves internal system and transmission digitalization – worth Tk300 crore.
“Hopefully on March 26 or Pohela Boishakh in 2019, you will see a new BTV with fresh colours and digital terrestrial broadcasting facilities.”