April 1, 2012
Farrell Meisel, American ex-pat and CEO of Afghan commercial network 1TV, tells Andrew McDonald about rolling out formats in a country still mired in conflict.
Running a commercial TV station in Afghanistan was never going to be an easy job. With daily challenges ranging from power outages to suicide bomb threats – even in Kabul’s safe zone – programming is often the least of Farrell Meisel’s problems.
Despite this, the group CEO of GroupOne Media and its Farsi- language network 1TV is finding success with a mixture of home- grown news and entertainment shows, acquired drama from territories like Turkey, India and South America, and now, for the first time, formats.
“Just last week we started taping our first licensed format, That’s My Stuff, from Sony Pictures Television. That will premiere in time to coincide with the Afghan new year,” said Meisel. “We have also bought the format rights to Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?.”
Meisel, who cut his teeth on US cable networks but has worked internationally for the past 20 years in countries including Russia, Poland and Singapore, claims that both formats are a good fit for the Afghan market. That’s My Stuff, which will initially run three nights a week in an early primetime slot, is a gameshow based in people’s homes that gives ordinary citizens the chance to win upgrades to expensive household appliances.
Meanwhile, 5th Grader, acquired from Mark Burnett Productions and due to debut in the spring, is “very important because the literacy rate is so low, so this is an opportunity to educate and inform, as well as entertain,” says Meisel.
One other advantage that the two light-hearted shows offer is the promise of advertising revenues. As a commercial station, 1TV relies on airtime bought by domestic companies, such as telecoms operators, and multinationals like Coca-Cola and Unilever. This is particularly important as Meisel, unlike other station bosses in the country, says he refuses to air unlicensed shows or formats, adding that FremantleMedia is currently dealing with an Afghan series that appears to have “ripped off” the American Idol format.
Despite the potential appeal of these two tried- and-tested entertainment formats, this has not stopped the network from pursuing more difficult programming choices. Niqab (The Mask) is an original programme for the network and one example of what Meisel describes as “brave” programming. Commissioned just before he joined the station in 2010, the US government-funded, studio-based primetime show acts as a platform for Afghan woman and girls who have been physically and mentally abused to break their silence, appearing behind a mask to discuss their difficult experiences with counsellors. “The first show was so successful that I went back to the US embassy for an additional grant, so we’ve done 22 shows and we’re waiting on clearance for a new season,” says Meisel.
The programming is part of the channel’s attempts to engage with the political situation in Afghanistan during its peak broadcasting hours. This can be seen with another original series, Kabul Debate Live. The show, filmed in front of a studio audience, features politicians, ambassadors and international leaders discussing topical issues, with viewers able to vote on the debate via SMS.
“We have focused on the banking sector, on violence, on what type of political system should there be – parliamentary or presidential – and questions about should the Taliban be allowed to negotiate.”
Summing up 1TV’s aims, Meisel says: “We are not a repository for acquired content. We’re not a typical broadcaster in that sense, so having a good local mix – having strong independent news and current affairs in entertainment – is very important.”
Yet when it comes to independent news-gathering, how impartial can a station, run by an American, truly be – especially when the US government is involved in its funding? “I’m not here representing the American government. While I have good contacts with the ambassador and members of the public diplomacy units and the council, I’m not here for those reasons,” says Meisel, pointing out that the channel’s founding president and primary shareholder, Fahim Hashimy, is an Afghan national.
“I didn’t go to Afghanistan for political reasons, I didn’t go because I have Afghan in my heritage, I didn’t have an epiphany. This is what I love to do, and I have some very creative people that I’m working with. The whole idea, I hope, is that they’re going to grab the ball and run. As far as what goes on geopolitically, that’s something for the so-called experts to figure out.”
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