The recent news item that the Government was planning to introduce a new authority for the development of electronic media in Sri Lanka is a welcome and timely initiative. This move should also be viewed in the context of legislative provisions required for digitising the existing analogue television, and possibly radio, in the near future. [...]

Sunday Times 2

New electronic media authority: A welcome initiative


The recent news item that the Government was planning to introduce a new authority for the development of electronic media in Sri Lanka is a welcome and timely initiative. This move should also be viewed in the context of legislative provisions required for digitising the existing analogue television, and possibly radio, in the near future.

Digitisation of analogue television, if managed efficiently, will deliver a bouquet of benefits to all stakeholders.

Unlike analogue, a single digital channel, be it radio or television, can carry multiple programme channels from several content providers. Therefore, a different set of rules are required for both licensing and regulatory purposes. Many countries that have digitised broadcasting have either modified their existing broadcasting legislation or introduced new regulatory mechanisms to accommodate the somewhat complex domain of digital broadcasting.

The introduction of digital broadcasting in these countries also provided for legislators to address contentious issues related to the widespread use of social media, which has thrown the previous definitions of electronic media into a frenzied spiral. Today, the age old ‘point to area communication’ boundaries are no more and many see this as a result of a rapid convergence of broadcasting, social media and data streaming. As such, new definitions or boundaries are now required for the converging media.

A new electronic media authority with legislative backbone would be seen as a smart move at this crucial time in broadcasting.
What should be the objectives of an electronic media authority?

The news item indicated that it would be an independent authority with powers to investigate complaints and hence would need to be set-up by an act of parliament.

At the outset, the primary objective should be to soft regulate both the content and carriage parts of all electronic media with the spirit of the act geared to provide room for the development and diversification of electronic media.
To achieve this, a broad set of objectives needs to be identified and addressed in the legislation. The key areas to be covered, but not limited to, in the act may be:

  • Radio and television in new digital age: content and carriage including data broadcasting and streaming; and
  • Social media.

In terms of broadcasting, there are two areas of importance; content and carriage. The transmission or the digital technology part is the carriage whereas the content part is the programming.

Current culture of broadcasting
For many years, broadcasters, particularly television, have been allowed to broadcast whatever they wished without a clear set of objectives and guidelines or a clear strategy to inculcate a ‘broadcasting culture’ appropriate to the Sri Lankan public. As a person who has been involved in Sri Lanka television from the inception of Rupavahini, I can forthrightly admit that some of us are partly responsible for the current ‘television broadcasting culture’. This was due to the unintended consequences of a short-term strategy introduced to overcome initial obstacles.

The Japanese feasibility study to establish the national network in 1979 identified two hours of evening programming during prime time, intermingled with news and some dubbed popular Japanese programmes. The television advisory committee established to aid the smooth commencement of Rupavahini, decided that Rupavahini should extend the evening viewing to 4 hours from the outset. This committee was headed by the then Broadcasting Minister Anandatissa De Alwis, and included the erstwhile permanent secretary Sarath Amunugama (now a senior Minister in the Government), Thevis Guruge, a highly respected broadcaster, who was also the Director General of SLBC and Competent Authority to the Government Owned Business Undertaking of ITN, and some of us.

As we all know, television is like a hungry elephant and requires a constant feed of programming material to fill in the transmission times. So we had to scrape and scramble to prepare enough programme material to be made available at the launch of Rupavahini in February 1982. This was a mammoth task!

At this time, other than a fistful of people who had limited experience from their work at ITN, there was no one who could effectively produce/direct television programmes. Nearly all those available were radio programme producers/directors turned television producers/directors overnight. About half way through the preparation of programme material we knew that the content that we had prepared was not going to be adequate to show the extended hours of television every night.

Then, someone came up with a brilliant idea of televising the existing theatre plays/dramas and showing this pre-recorded material on Rupavahini. The productions were easy; it was a case of aiming the camera and letting the story unfold! I still remember going to see the then famous ‘Kelani Palama’ at the Tower Hall theatre that was being recorded to be televised. Soon televising of theatre plays and cinema movies came to the rescue to feed this hungry national ‘elephant’ on a regular basis.
After the establishment of Rupavahini, the televised teledramas became the norm. The practice that was started as a temporary stop-gap arrangement consumed prime time viewing within no time!

Currently, on a daily basis, the Sri Lankan viewers sit through several hours of teledrama programmes, aired one after the other, during prime time. Programming in almost all channels is predominantly teledrama, except for news bulletins squeezed in between. A count done on teledramas a couple of years ago revealed a staggering 131 with many running into hundreds of episodes. Added to this, there is a new trend emerging in the form of dubbed Indian mega teledramas, where audiences are transported to fantasy lands of glamour, gossip and Indian family politics. The Sri Lankan teledrama artistes are not happy and are protesting that prominence and much sought after prime-time belts are given to Indian mega-teledramas and that their livelihood is being threatened.

In Sri Lanka, it is also impossible to watch a news bulletin without being interrupted by frequently sponsored advertising, including scrolling advertisements at the bottom of the screen. Such advertising practices are not accepted overseas. Often, programme content such as teledrama is frequently interrupted by advertisements and the irony is that the time devoted to the actual programme content is much less than the total time dedicated for advertising during that slot of time. As for sports coverage, particularly when cricket is shown, advertising segments are so tightly scheduled that complete bowling overs are rarely shown.

This painful evening viewing culture needs attention. Viewers are in need of a variety of programme content on a daily basis, particularly in the evening when one sits down to take their mind off work. This variety could include quality teledramas, infotainment (informative programmes on areas such as nature, health, leisure, travel and scientific research) and topical documentary content. Valuable discussions and debates on current issues are presently left to the very end of the evening when tired viewers dose off to sleep.

There are also other areas that would need to be addressed in legislation as freedom of information has raised issues related to sensationalism and misinterpretation when reporting.

These other areas may be:

  • Right of reply to opposing opinion, whether it is political or otherwise;
  • Balanced reporting
  • mechanisms; and
  • A complaint regime and an investigative mechanism to investigate public  complaints and an appropriate penalty scheme.

The transition to digital can become the trigger for changing the broadcasting culture! Admittedly, provisions will have to be put in place to circumvent the loss in advertising revenue to broadcasters. A consensus based platform may be agreed upon to improve the now prevailing culture of frequent advertising interruptions. This task will become increasingly achievable and realistic with the advent of digital.

There is no doubt that the culture of television broadcasting in Sri Lanka is in need of a paradigm shift. One approach to introducing change may be identifying a broad set of objectives in the legislation to bring about a cultural shift that is aligned with the spirit of the legislation. This would ensure that legislation offers guidance for the evolution of a broadcasting culture more suited to Sri Lankan audiences. It would be a futile exercise if the culture of broadcasting is not addressed in the new legislation.

Digital transmission
The digital television technology is different to analogue and requires close management of both transmission and reception, if the country is to benefit from the technology. In countries like Australia, where digital transition has been completed, the specific requirements for smooth transition were articulated in the broadcasting legislation.

It is likely that digitisation of analogue television in Sri Lanka may begin this year and if managed efficiently, will deliver a bouquet of benefits to all stakeholders.

In brief, these are:

  • Government: capital revenue from vacant spectrum sales due to a digital dividend;
  • Broadcasters: flexibility to provide High Definition (HD) and Standard Definition (SD) channels with potential to earn higher advertising revenue;
  • Viewers: high video clarity, 5.1 surround sound, more programme channels, content variety and niche channels (ex. dedicated 24/7 news channel or teledrama channel);
  •  Production houses: variety of programme content to be produced for television as well as for mobile TV;
  • Telecommunication companies: potential availability of ‘beach front’ spectrum for 4G services from the digital dividend.

How does digital work?
Simply put, the picture and sound are turned into a stream of 1s and 0s within an 8 or 7 MHz channel that will pass on the video and audio information from thousands of digital carriers instead of a single carrier. Each channel can carry a significantly higher amount of information. The capacity of a digital channel, depending on the system chosen for Sri Lanka, will be about 6 to 10 channels more than its analogue equivalent. Additionally, the number of digital channels required to replace analogue television channels is much less because of ‘close packing’ and the re-use of frequencies. Hence a significant digital dividend is on the cards.

Not only are digital transmissions more efficient than their analogue counterparts but they are also cheaper to operate. The bands they use are both VHF and UHF while many countries prefer to use VHF because of transmission and reception efficiencies over UHF. One of the issues associated with digital is that reception is likely to be troublesome unlike analogue television. Therefore, there is a need to introduce a risk management strategy for digital such as the one that was introduced in Australia (of which the author is familiar), with extensive support provided for public education and assistance. It is in this context that legislation for digital is of paramount importance.

Some of the other digital domain issues that would need to be reflected in the legislation are:-

  • Co-location of services to provide equal levels of signals to all programme channels and to economise transmission costs (i.e. use of Lotus Tower as single transmission facility for Colombo);
  • A new licence regime for licensing of television multiplexes at the transmission site/s and a licensing fee structure based on actual population covered ;
  • Provisions to prevent hoarding of digital licences;
  • New content licence scheme for all content providers; and
  • Identification of broadcasting spectrum for both digital television and radio.

Social media requirements
The advent of high speed internet and the availability of greater bandwidth at a reasonable cost for both fixed broadband and mobile phones have allowed people to create and share content using websites and applications. These applications also allow users to participate in social networking. It is important to remember that social media is not only Facebook or Twitter. There are quite a number of other applications available today.

In fact Brian Solis’s ‘conversation prism’ depicts that social media can be categorised into three main areas: They are:

  • Listening- Human Resources and Brand
  • Learning-Community, Service and Development and
  • Adapting-Communications, Sales and Marketing

Therefore, social media has evolved into a vast source of information conduits, much greater than what we initially envisaged.
In developed countries there is a silent consensus emerging that social media should be regulated. A possible consequence of such regulation is that it may lead to unwarranted restriction of media freedom. Any surveillance is bound to curtail the use of social media and there might even be a drop in the use of social networks while total abstinence also cannot be ruled out.

However, many consider that it is more appropriate to encourage the provider of services to come up with widely acceptable terms of service conditions. Simply put, this implies soft-touch regulation. Therefore, it is important to consider measured terms of service conditions particularly suited to Sri Lanka web sites.

These terms of service conditions should be stipulated in the proposed electronic media legislation and web sites registered in Sri Lanka should adhere to them. Perhaps the objectives of these terms of service conditions should also be stipulated along with an appropriate penalty regime. The penalties could be imposed if it can be proven through a complaints mechanism that terms of service conditions have been breached. The terms of service conditions can be identified after extensive stakeholder consultation.

It is unfortunate that some web sites do not respect the media freedom granted to them after a decade of dictatorial media control. More often than not, their reporting is biased and it is sad that some even drag themselves down to vituperative politics to stand out in a fiercely competitive environment.

Over the past 34 years, since the inception of Rupavahini, television broadcasting in Sri Lanka has been managed through the limited provisions in the Sri Lanka Rupavahini and Telecommuni-cations Acts. Now that we are on the verge of moving into the digital domain, particularly in television, it is an opportune moment to have some form of media legislation in place to steer the development of electronic media, including social media, towards a content culture more fitting for Sri Lankan audiences.

(The writer is a retired Principal Engineer, Digital Transition Division, Australian Communications and Media Authority, a former Director Engineering at Rupavahini and consultant to ITN)

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