Exec’s TV journey leads to Kabul

Weekly Variety and variety.com
Posted: Sat., Feb. 11, 2012, 4:00am PT

Exec’s TV journey leads to Kabul
Former U.S. station honcho programs in a war zone

By Brian Lowry

Farrell Meisel always dreamed of programming a television network. He just never figured he’d be doing it in a war zone.

Having cut his teeth at local stations in the U.S. — including a stint at WWOR in New Jersey — Meisel embarked on a career in international television two decades ago. Stints all over the globe followed — launching Turner in Moscow, furthering Viacom’s efforts in the Middle East, News Corp.’s in Poland, and setting up Arabic-language channel Alhurra Television.

Now Meisel finds himself in Afghanistan, serving as group CEO of groupOne Media and 1TV, a commercial TV channel. Given the nascent stage of media in the war-torn country, a friend of Meisel’s half-jokingly referred to him as “the Brandon Tartikoff of Kabul” — a nod to the legendary NBC programmer.

For those in media who might occasionally wrestle with the headaches associated with their jobs, the details of Meisel’s gig offer a welcome dose of perspective. Plus, there’s the fairly real threat whatever he achieves with the fledgling network could be erased when the U.S. finally leaves or seriously diminishes its presence, particularly if Afghanistan’s political fortunes turn and the Taliban finds itself back in an expanded position of power.

“It’s a very challenging, sometimes difficult environment,” Meisel says, reflecting a gift for understatement.

Meisel travels with bodyguards, and resides in a protected compound that’s home to other expatriates. As an added security measure, he varies his schedule.

As for the other schedule that preoccupies him — programming 1TV — he refers to it as a “full-fledged operation,” with about 50 hours a week of local shows and the rest acquired from abroad. There’s a version of the quizshow “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” but the U.S. presence is muted, with most of the imported dramas coming from Turkey, India, South America and Canada.

“Flashpoint,” a Canadian series about a SWAT team, has proven perhaps unexpectedly popular, though even that presents some issues: Women depicted in such programs must have parts of their bodies pixelated if they’re not modestly dressed. An actress wearing a tank top, for instance, would require some work in the editing suite.

Because of high illiteracy rates, all foreign shows have to be dubbed. But there’s a clear appetite for impartial news and information, including “The Mask,” a series in which women and girls — with their faces somewhat eerily cloaked and covered — provide harrowing tales of personal abuse. There’s even a latenight show, “Sweet Night,” in “The Tonight Show” mode.Of course, popularity is somewhat relative and difficult to gauge. There are no ratings as we know them, and TV reaches only about 40% to 45% of the country. Limits on TV penetration include the ability to afford sets, mountainous terrain and Taliban-controlled areas “where television is frowned upon,” Meisel says. (A competing channel, Tolo TV, airs “Afghan Star,” a hit singing competition that became the subject of an HBO documentary.)

Meisel chatted during one of his periodic visits to the U.S. — a journey that itself takes more than a day to complete. He credits his boss, a young Afghan entrepreneur named Fahim Hashimy — with possessing the foresight that went into establishing the channel, as well as a young staff learning its craft from the ground up. “Everything we’re creating is homegrown,” he says.

Meisel says he initially began looking to reinvent himself professionally because he “didn’t like where local television was headed.” In his travels (one can only imagine the frequent-flyer mileage amassed), he has dealt with frustrating conditions before — introducing the former Soviet Union’s first commercial station was no picnic — and cites a level of satisfaction in serving an area so clearly in need.

If nothing else, Meisel’s story should make anyone Stateside think twice about glibly using TV-scheduling-as-warfare analogies. Still, Meisel insists he’s a poor candidate for a profile in courage, and won’t be the first or last American media exec to brave Afghanistan.

“There is a sense of accomplishment and pride” regarding the work being done, he says. “Yet it is wearying. I’d like to do it in a safer place.”

Contact Brian Lowry at brian.lowry@variety.com

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