The Bhutan Broadcasting Service - on the road to PSB
Posted on 27th October 2011
Elizabeth Smith, Chair, Commonwealth Media Group and Consultant, Transforming Broadcasting
Elizabeth Smith found, during her consultancy there 17-26 October 2011, that BBS is broadcasting good quality programming which meets virtually all the criteria for Public Service Broadcasting. However, their situation is vulnerable and a few adjustments are needed in the legislation relating to them, to ensure their continuation as a strong PSB in the years ahead.
Radio broadcasting began in Bhutan in 1973 when young volunteers in the National Youth Association began transmitting 30 minutes of news and music on Sundays. Six years later the Government incorporated the station under the Ministry of Communications. In 1986 it became the Bhutan Broadcasting Service and transmissions rose to three hours a day. Today, BBS broadcasts 24 hours a day, including repeats, in 4 languages. The output includes news, current affairs, religious programming, health programming and programmes for women and for children and youth. The youth programming includes education.
A turning point for the station came in 1992 when the then King issued a Royal Edict delinking the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS) from the Ministry of Communications “to give it the flexibility to grow in professionalism and to enable it to be more effective in fulfilling its important responsibility to society .” This was an enlightened move, part of the progress toward democratisation and constitutional monarchy led by King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. BBS was made into an autonomous corporation governed by an editorial board comprising representatives of the government, media professionals, scholars and eminent citizens. The staff lost their civil service status and became employees of BBS – a crucial move, which affects how the staff think about their position, emphasising that they are not part of Government.
TV started much later in Bhutan than elsewhere. It was not till 1999 that it was launched, to coincide with the Silver Jubilee celebrations of the coronation of His Majesty the Fourth King. It started with one hour of transmissions a day in the capital, Thimpu, but by 2006 it was transmitting nationwide off satellite. BBS TV now broadcasts for five hours daily in the evenings, including News, announcements, plus various programmes and documentaries. The same output is rebroadcast the next morning. Three additional hours of entertainment programmes and live music request shows are broadcast on weekend afternoons.
There is now discussion as to whether the legislation of 2006 is still appropriate or needs to be amended. BBS receives an annual grant from the Government. There is a strong case that this should be altered to 3-year – or better still, 5-year - funding, to allow for strategic planning and to minimise opportunities for government pressure. There are also arguments put forward for enshrining the independence of BBS in legislation. The present government prides itself on the freedom allowed to BBS, but such governments are rare in the world and they may not always be in power in Bhutan in the future. Under discussion is possible legislation defining the independence of BBS, and its control of its operational costs. The advantage of controlling operational costs is that BBS could move to zero-based budgeting and find savings which could be deployed for new initiatives. It could also plan strategically and live less hand-to-mouth. In return for passing these powers to BBS, the Government could define exactly what kind of output it required from BBS, ask it to lead the population into the information society, and demand full financial accountability as to how their funds are spent.
The support for BBS as a Public Service Broadcaster is strong in both the Bhutan InfoComm Media Authority and the Ministry of Information and Communications. As Wangay Dorji, Head of Communication, BICMA, put it at a Forum run by the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy on October 21 2011: “The Draft Broadcasting Policy is committed to uphold in principle that independent broadcasting in the dual system of public and private broadcasting is an essential element of the democratic culture of Bhutan.” Kinley T. Wangchuk, Director of the Ministry of Information and Communication, feels that there is a need to amend the Media Act of 2006, which, he says, has not kept pace with the fast changes in the media. He acknowledges concern that the PSB status of BBS needs to be defined. “We are at a critical juncture, transferring a state broadcaster to PSB. We are grappling with the procedures as to how to do this.”
Government figures in Bhutan sometimes speak of the media as the fourth arm of the Government. Others, such as Siok Sian Pek-Dorji, Executive Director of the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy, are emphatic that the media is the fourth arm of governance. An MP, Karma Rangdol, who was at the Forum on Broadcasting at which Siok Sian Pek-Dori made these remarks, told me, amid lots of laughter, that “BBS is a Government arm that works against the Government”. “Very healthy,” I said. He went on to say that he approved of a free media even when it hurt.
Entering the BBS building, the Vision and Mission statements are on the wall, doubtless to encourage staff and inform visitors. The Vision defines BBS as “A trusted Public Service Broadcaster of international standing reflecting the Bhutanese expression”. And it sees its Mission as: “Excellence in broadcasting, inspired by the values of Gross National Happiness, promoting the well-being, equanimity and sense of community among the people of the Kingdom of Bhutan”.
Some statements of this kind are sometimes conspicuous in their neglect. But these are taken seriously by the staff of BBS who try hard to live up to them. The new challenge ahead for the station is the imminent arrival of one or more commercial TV stations. So far BBS has had a near-monopoly in locally-originated TV, though there are local cable companies which originate some local material. Much of the cable output is of local children dancing. They transmit so much of this that visitors might think that Bhutanese children do nothing else.
BBS also competes against over 50 overseas channels, including many Indian news and entertainment channels and international ones such as the BBC and CNN. For radio, 5 local entertainment channels have been licensed and one college radio. Bids are now invited for national commercial TV channels for Bhutan, and the expectation is that they will be up and running by the start of 2013. This will mean a major change in the culture of Bhutan, protected as it is to some extent from the full force of local consumer-driven commercial TV. Accordingly, some argue that it would be wise to treat commercial TV in Bhutan as tourism is treated: to go for quality rather than quantity. This would mean licensing only one commercial channel rather than a few. The danger, critics argue, is that the country is not rich enough to support a multitude of channels: there would be so little income that the quality of their output is bound to be poor. However, the Government is committed to an Open Media policy and changes in this area seem unlikely in the near future.
It should be remembered, however, that market forces cannot meet all the TV and radio needs of the public. The commercial sector, unless required to behave otherwise by the regulator, sees its mission as making money for its shareholders rather than to serve rural populations, or minorities or the disadvantaged.
TV is such a powerful medium that it affects the way people think. Commercial TV encourages people, especially the young, to think that success and happiness lies in possessions rather than within oneself. The traditions of Bhutan go back to its history as a successful subsistence economy, where money had little meaning. As a British envoy, George Bogle, put it when he travelled through Bhutan in 1774: the people of Bhutan “are strangers to falsehood and ingratitude. Theft and every other species of dishonesty to which the lust of money gives birth, are little known…. The common people are good-humoured, downright and I think thoroughly trusty.” It would be sad if present policies were to squander this heritage.
One change which might be viewed sympathetically is for action to increase the size of the independent production sector in Bhutan. This is unlikely to grow unless the regulator specifies that a certain proportion of the output of all broadcasting organisations is provided by Independents. This could start very low, say 2%, and build up as the sector grows.
There is likely in the future to be pressure on BBS to shift the balance of output to where it is most needed. The outlying regions are not as well served with local content as they would like to be. Bhutan has much of its population living as subsistence farmers, in areas without the roads which would enable them to sell produce and increase their incomes and opportunities for education and health care. They are served primarily by radio. Because they cannot afford large satellite dishes for TV, this is likely to continue to be the case for a long time. BBS has plans to extend its regional coverage through enhanced regional centres, starting with one in the East.
BBS, or some at BBS, would like an additional channel, so that they would have one PBS channel and one entertainment one, funded by advertising revenue. Plus an additional radio channel in the local language of Dzongkha. The disadvantage of funding a new channel by ads could be that it would open BBS to charges of competing unfairly - taking money from advertisers which the advertisers feel should go to the commercial sector. Additionally, many viewers would probably watch only the entertainment and would no longer be exposed to the socially beneficial output which BBS transmits.
So the future for broadcasting in Bhutan hangs in the balance. There is currently a window of opportunity to improve the broadcasting legislation. The task is to get defences in place so that PSB in Bhutan can continue and develop, and withstand what different-thinking governments may try to impose in the future. The time for action on this is now.
• Organise new legislation. This should define the independence and impartiality of BBS, include 3-5 year funding and pass control of its operational spending to BBS. In return, the Government would define what it requires from BBS, including, for example the hours of news and of children’s programming and education, and full financial accountability.
• Though this seems unlikely at the moment, the Government might look again at its policy of Open Media. It will be difficult to un-license commercial TV companies, and Bhutan might find itself as a much more consumer-orientated society than it would really like. If the principle of Open Access to the media was modified, the Regulator could add a diversity requirement to its licensing criteria. This would mean that aspiring licenses had to offer material not already being supplied, and so all sectors could be better served. The regulator could also consider – though this is difficult – some kind of a quality threshold for the commercial sector, and take away licenses if this is not met. The regulator could require a low proportion of PSB content from all the commercial licensees, though of course this would not be popular with them. Some control over the number of DTH channels could also be considered, to keep out those verging on pornography and the kind of shopping channels which turn citizens into obsessive consumers.
• The Government or the regulator may like to consider imposing a quota for independent local production, to encourage the independent sector
The Media and the Need for Commonwealth reform - 26th March 2011
Ivory Coast to move towards Public Service Broadcasting - 24th April 2011
Climate Change and the Media: Tell it as a story - 18th May 2011
Media Regulation: Broadcasters and Social Media - 1st June 2011
NBC plans to move towards PSB - 15th June 2011
Lesotho Broadcasters adopt Guidelines for Election Coverage - 25th July 2011
The Bhutan Broadcasting Service - on the road to PSB - 27th October 2011
Sierra Leone Broadcasting Corporation - 8th December 2011
WSIS helps the internet's contribution to media freedom - 15th May 2012
The role of PSB in supporting Social Media - 8th December 2012
A Call for Action on PSB in Africa - 24th January 2014
Public Service Broadcasting and Development - 3rd March 2014
Moving towards Public Service Broadcasting - Progress in South Sudan - 6th October 2014
South Sudan starts setting up its Public Broadcasting Corporation - 22nd November 2014
Hopes dim for Public Service Broadcasting in South Sudan - 10th March 2015
Prospects Brighter for the South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation - 12th March 2016
Progress in South Sudan Broadcasting - 10th July 2016
© Transforming Broadcasting