FARRELL MEISEL remembers a moment at MIPCOM last year. A distributor walked past him in the Palais and shouted, “Hey, Farrell, do you need a documentary about Afghanistan?” “No, thanks. I’m living one,” Meisel quipped.
Unlike most people in an industry prone to exaggeration, Meisel was telling it like it is — the CEO of groupOne Media and 1TV Media is indeed working in the sort of conditions most of us only ever encounter on film. He lives in a protected compound and moves out of it only under armed escort. The soundtrack to his life is gunfire and bomb explosions. It puts an average day at the office in perspective.
But Meisel remains resolutely unfazed. He’s not especially brave, he insists, just getting on with the job of programming a station in a war zone — a job that now includes producing two international formats: Sony/2waytraffic’s That’s My Stuff and Mark Burnett’s Are you Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?
“My hope is that Afghanistan can develop and sustain a responsible media sector, respecting the rule of law, with high-quality entertainment, and independent, unbiased news and factual programming,” he tells Joanna Stephens at the start of this exclusive FRAPA interview…
Tell us about 1TV, its mission and ambitions…
“1TV is a Kabul-based, Afghan-owned, private, independent TV station. It’s part of the groupOne media communications firm, which was founded two years ago by Fahim Hashimy, a young Afghan entrepreneur who was the former translator/aide to the US ambassador, General Karl Eikenberry. Hashimy’s aim is to create multimedia products that stimulate independent thought and promote the ideals of liberty to which Afghans aspire.”
Could you describe the TV landscape in Afghanistan?
“There are 60 local TV channels, 25 of which are actually licensed. There are five channels that are watched by the majority of the viewers, and there are a few cable/satellite platforms, which transmit the major international thematic channels. TV penetration is about 45% of the 29 million population. This is due to the cost of electricity and goods, the mountainous terrain, which makes TV difficult to receive except by pay cab/sat, and the control of the Taliban in some provinces, who forbid the viewing of TV.”
What prompted your move into formats?
“It was a natural progression to continue to enhance our line-up with more locally produced content. Purchasing formats that have succeeded in other countries — especially in other Muslim countries — allows us to build our local identity and increase revenue opportunities, while helping us to develop and sustain our on- and off-air talent. It also reduces our reliance on acquired serials and dramas, which in the long-term aren’t as cost-efficient.”
You’ve just started production on That’s My Stuff and Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? How’s it going?
“That’s My Stuff has gone into production, although I had hoped to have it on the air in November. The delay was the result of a combination of reasons: getting the right advertiser/sponsors, coupled with the worst winter conditions and snowstorms in history. That made it impossible to get out in the field, which is necessary because the show travels to a different home for each episode.
“Next we go into pre-production for 5th Grader. The challenge here is to find a stage large enough to fit in the set we will be constructing to give it the same vibrant appearance as the other international versions. Finding space to produce programming is very challenging in Afghanistan — and, thus, very expensive. In most cases, wedding halls are leased for the production of big variety and reality shows.”
What are the main challenges when it comes to adapting formats for Afghanistan?
“First and foremost, the culture and tastes of Afghan consumers. Shows also have to resonate with viewers that, as TV in Afghanistan matures, are becoming more familiar with quality international content. Additionally, we don’t want to acquire a format that may not be acceptable in an Islamic country.”
What sort of formats do you believe would succeed in Afghanistan and why?
“Simple game shows that offer the chance to win significant money. Also content that educates as well as entertains, which was my prime motivation in acquiring the rights to 5th Grader. However, there’s a bigger challenge here. Afghanistan has a literacy rate of less than 30%. Around 43% are male; 12% are female. Six million children go to school — 35% of them are girls. The overall population is 29 million. In view of the poor literacy rate, highly rated formats such as Wheel Of Fortune or Jeopardy! would not necessarily play well here. Also, the Afghan government sees Wheel as a form of gambling.”
Conversely, what wouldn’t work?
“Shows and/or formats that appear to have a gambling component or are in any way risqué. Shows with potential sexual tension — Friends, Sex And the City, Two and a Half Men — wouldn’t be acceptable locally, even though they’re seen on cable and satellite. However, that’s only viewed by a very small percentage of the population.”
What about the risk of format theft?
“This is a huge problem. Idol has been heavily copied for seven years, as has Iron Chef. Afghanistan has one of the highest rates of corruption and piracy. DVDs of series, internationally recognised cartoons and movies air regularly on various TV channels. Most are purchased at local kiosks and bazaars, or shipped in from Dubai or the US.”