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

Read the full article at:
http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118050069?refcatid=19

“Television in the Midst of Conflict”

July 21, 2011
O’Globo, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

“Television in the Midst of Conflict”

As CEO of Afghan’s 1TV, Farrell Meisel talks about the difficulties of operating in a country in conflict

By Thais Britto – OGLOBO

RIO – After 15 years working in American TV from New Orleans to Washington, passing through New York, then Farrell Meisel, journalist could have chosen to stay in the country and develop a linear, predictable and fruitful career. But in 1992, he felt he needed a change and applied for a job at Turner Broadcasting System. Six months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the company planned to establish the first commercial TV channel in Russia.

In 1993, Meisel moved to Moscow as head of operations at TV6. Since then, he spent little time in the United States, worked in places like Istanbul, Singapore, Warsaw, London and Bucharest. In 2003, his path turned to countries in conflict. For three years he served as a consultant in the development of Alhurra, a station financed by the U.S. government during the Iraq War in an attempt to “promote democracy and freedom in the Middle East.” Since last year, he has been the CEO of 1TV in Afghanistan.

Last month, Meisel was in Brazil to give a lecture on the challenges of content production in hostile environments. And, by phone, talked exclusively with the magazine about their TV experience.

“Our goal is to give an opportunity for citizens to express themselves. The Afghans do not have a free media. They’ve lived at war for 30 years. In our programs, we seek to address issues that directly affect their lives from women’s rights and freedom of expression,” he explains.

Meisel is the only American on the team of about 300 people working in 1TV. A year on the air, the station is the third most popular in the country and has in his crate an eclectic array of attractions that includes news, variety shows, soap operas, series, talk shows and comedy. According to the journalist, television reaches 40% to 50% of the population, and some programs have achieved very good effect.

One is called “The Mask” and brings to the stage that women have suffered some type of abuse to share their stories:

“The biggest challenge is to help young Afghans understand the importance of free press and not be afraid to speak. This is very new to them. In the case of ‘The Mask’, we want to show women and girls, of course, and men, it is necessary to promote the strength and quality of life of women.”

Recently, a survey showed that Afghanistan is the country with the largest number of crimes against them.

Despite good intentions, the work is not easy. He said his employees face unimaginable complications for professionals who work elsewhere in the world.

“ The country is still at war. Sometimes we face situations such as power loss and lack of fuel. And safety is a major issue. Kabul seems a city of metal, because of the threat of violence. But the general feeling is that things are improving. Of course it is all going very slowly. Developing education and strong trading will take years,” said Meisel.

Link to the original story:

http://www.leitor.com.br/adm/ver_link_brasiltv.asp?veiculo=O%20Globo%20-%20Rio%20de%20Janeiro/RJ&data=17/7/2011&edi=Revista%20da%20TV&pag=15&qtd=1&class=5935&img=..//clientes/brasiltv/h110721_128a.jpg

Valor Economica (Brazilian national business daily newspaper) – Sao Paulo, Brazil 22-24 June 2011 “Media In Afghanistan, the revolution has begun”

Farrell Meisel, an American executive, manages the television network in Kabul, that produces political debates and programs about abused women: “even among young people, many Afghans do not believe in equality, ” says Meisel.

By Diego Viana, São Paulo

Sitting in front of the Studio’s door, the woman waited for the time of the recording. Shrunken against the wall, holding a carton of juice, she cried copiously. When given the time, she stood up and walked into the room to appear on the program “The Mask” (“Niqāb”). Created by Sami Mahdi, 28 years old, a former lawyer, “Niqab” is broadcast by the 1TV channel from Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Sitting still, behind a blue and white mask that protects their identity and gives them courage, women recount their experiences of domestic abuse within the country.

The importance of these invited guests and the impact of the repertoire of the program, is among the achievements, which American Farrell Meisel, Chief Executive Officer of 1TV is most proud. The channel launched in 2010.
Meisel, who is based in Kabul, just spoke at the 12th Annual Brasil Forum about the experiences in making “television free and open.” With great certainty and a sense of purpose, the executive discusses his experiences in Afghanistan, “working through his first year, and experiencing his first spring in the country” his wife, Vered Kollek, a filmmaker, describes his seriousness, and commitment in Kabul, yet, emphasizes the aspects of life and the risks he is taking surrounding heavy security. “I adapt. I do not go to places that are under alert,” Meisel explained with emphasis.

He started his international career in 1992 after working for years in American broadcasting, when he launched and founded TV6 Moscow, the first private TV station, after the fall of the Soviet Union. The year he made the change saying he was tired of the direction of American TV. “Everything was the same, the market showed no promise and quality greatly diminished.” Since then he has managed channels and media companies in Turkey, Poland and Singapore, among other locations. Then, he launched the Alhurra Television Network (“The Free One” in Arabic), funded by the U.S. Government.” The project paved the way to create more freedom for viewers who were deprived of their rights, from years of Arabic state TV monopolies.

In Afghanistan, Meisel said the initial vision of the channel has come from founder Fahim Hashimy, who is 30 years old. His vision is to unite all the people. Television in the country began in 1974, but was banned by the Taliban from 1996 to 2002. Today, the media is expanding rapidly, with channels created quickly, with nine channels probably viewed out of 20 and radio according to a research report on “Afghan Media 2010”, sponsored by the American USAID (United States Agency for International Development). The annual growth of operators is around 20%.

“He (Fahim) chose the name, Yak, or 1 in Dari (Afghan Farsi), which Fahim wanted, in order to unite the people of the country. Fahim attaches great importance to this mission,” Meisel said. Among the other channels, Tolo-TV is still the leader, but it was founded in 2004. Every country needs competition and multiple voices in a democracy. We produce a variety of uncensored programs. We have cable TV coming from neighboring countries, such as Iran and India and programs are closely monitored and censored by the Ministry of Information and Culture. 1TV broadcasts objective news and investigative programs. In the debates, there is heavy discussion, with no exception. ‘The Mask’ is very well received. However, even many Afghans don’t believe in equality at this point. One of our female presenters of the program was forced to quit because of pressure from her family,” Meisel stated.
The 1TV CEO is committed to public service and wants to see more of these programs. “We want programs that can stimulate, inform and entertain, and we’ll get results”, Meisel said.

There are about 65 channels around now, maybe 25 new ones launched in the last few years. Media advertising expenditure for TV are around $30 million, but those estimates are questionable. Advertisers, according to the USAID study include wireless companies such as the UAE’s Etisalat, government agencies, the U.S. Government, NGO’s and multinational institutions. At 1TV, there are 300 employees. Television and Radio are by far the largest outlets to reach the public – about 40% coverage.

Illiteracy is very high among Afghans – approximately 30% of the nearly 29 million Afghans can’t read – 43% are men, 12% are women. The figures bring out the social role of television and the channel’s mission. The debates and “The Mask,” are defining the channel’s identity, in particular to empower women,” says Mahdi, on the tape projected in the presentation, and he created this with the thought of his mother: “To help women. If I’m helping women, I’m helping my mother, “Mahdi said.

These initiatives are important to the country where regulations and “ad hoc” legal rules are enforced by authorities. “We have to work with many groups, including government ones to improve people’s lives. Yet, people here deserve to have their freedom. It is a process,” said the American executive, who is dedicating his career by entertaining and training Afghans with Western values by using commercial television to reach the masses.

Link to the original Portuguese language article:

http://www.leitor.com.br/adm/ver_link_brasiltv.asp?veiculo=Valor%20Econ%C3%B4mico%20-%20S%C3%A3o%20Paulo/SP&data=24%20a%2026/06/2011&edi=Eu%20e%20Fim%20de%20Semana&pag=23&qtd=1&class=5935&img=..//clientes/brasiltv/n11062459a.jpg