Pique Report –
Can BOL Deliver Where Others Have Failed?
Earlier this year, June to be exact, Pique did a cover story on the burgeoning feud between the country’s two biggest
television media houses, Geo and ARY, and how it was exposing both the institutional deficiencies of PEMRA, as well casting aspersions over the media neutrality of our civil-military establishment.
Lots of mud-slinging, legal notices, two temporary airwave bans for both media houses and two months later, it seems that Geo has come off worse for the wear. The country’s premier news channel has lost some of its popularity, a lot of its advertising pull, and many of its employees, including televangelist Amir Liaquat Hussain and star anchor person, Kamran Khan.
One major reason being that cable network operators, especially after Geo’s name was dragged into a religious controversy and subsequent fatwas against its content, either refused to put the channel back on air, post-ban, or simply relegated it to (ever changing) marginal frequencies.
An unfortunate situation for sure, the twin allegations of anti-nationalist and anti-religious content are a death blow in this country. Even though a press note issued by the national electronic media regulator, PEMRA, warned cable network operators to refrain from any activity that is against the terms and conditions of their licenses – which include the blacking out of private TV channels and the frequent changes in their position – Geo’s once strong position at the pinnacle of televised news is now floundering.
But some of this is also the network’s own fault. Known for controlling the media policies formed by Jang and Geo with a ruthless fist and monopolistic eye, owner Mir Shakeel-ur-Rahman has often courted enmity with smaller media houses. Something we will come back to a few paragraphs down.
Indeed, it’s the bitter rivals, in ARY, that have hurt Geo the most, with Mubasher Lucman seemingly hired for a one-man mission of slandering and defaming Mir.
The loss of the 32 year old association between Kamran Khan and Jang/Geo is huge. What’s even bigger is that the loss is to an upcoming media group called BOL, where he joins as President and Editor-in-Chief.
Kamran Khan, who hosted Geo’s highest rated and prime time news show, also left with the haunting words of ‘envisioning a world where journalists decide what news to show instead of media moguls and owners’. A sobering rejoinder to how everyone else, Geo, ARY, Dunya, Express, conduct their business.
BOL is being launched by Karachi-based Shoaib A. Shaikh, who is also the chairman and chief executive of Axact. Back in 1997, when Yahoo! had just begun to gain momentum and two Stanford students were yet to be called the founders of Google, Axact began its operations from a single room with less than 10 team members. The year 2005 was a milestone for them, when they expanded their business and formally became a corporation, today they call themselves the biggest IT company in the world.
Certainly a tall claim, perhaps not even close to being factually true, but Axact’s currently claimed assets of eight, broad-business units and products, more than 5,200 dedicated employees and associates globally, and as many as 8.3 million customers worldwide, is nothing to scoff at.
Moreover, BOL TV is just one part of the BOL Network. The enterprise will apparently span television, digital media, print media, cinemas, movies, and radio channels. Compared to other TV channels in Pakistan, they are offering much higher amounts to anchors, newsroom staff and other employees.
The new network proudly claims that an advertisement it ran earlier this year resulted in over 40,000 applications. There already over 40 news and regional channels battling for airtime and viewer attention, but BOL is confident of beginning at the top of the pyramid.
As a result of BOLs entry, other channels have had to raise salaries to keep their star performers from leaving. From initializing of the project in June 2013 start, Axact has built a visibly sprawling network across the major urban cities of Pakistan. BOL vans can be seen driving around Lahore and Karachi, they claim to be building the world’s largest infrastructure.
The Axact chief in a press conference stated that their main media center will have an in-house auditorium comprising 500 seats, in addition to 33 studios, a mini-hotel inside the building premises, with each room having its own personalized swimming pool. He compared this to Burj-al-Arab, as the benchmark they are trying to trump.
Axact is also claiming to upgrade on the outdated Octopus News Management System. Their newer system will revolutionize cable-television provision, they say, which currently distributes in a decentralized, manual system of boosters and nodes.
Axact has also issued statements that BOL is 100% owned and funded by the company. It has denied any association with other partners or corporate magnates. It has had to, for allegations of being a propaganda/money laundering front surfaced immediately after the network began its media relations campaign.
Axact was accused of hosting illegal porn sites and involved in selling fake degrees. The owner and founder Shoaib Shaikh was allegedly mentioned in a British newspaper report that accused him of hosting websites that charge money for writing term papers and dissertations for students.
The more elaborate exposes claimed that BOL channel is affiliated Dawood Ibrahim, ISI and/or Malik Riaz. These more severe allegations didn’t just restrict themselves to the odd newspaper report, but were spread around various platforms such as SMSs, viral emails and blogs.
The ruckus started after Jang Group, within a month of BOL’s announcement as an upcoming media channel in Pakistan, published a news report which cited Dawood Ibrahim laundered money as BOL’s primary financing.
Three months later, a media outlet from across the eastern border, the Hindustan Times, published the same story verbatim, further fueling speculation and rumours. At this time, the original story was under litigation. Within 5 days of publishing the repeated story, the Hindustan Times removed the legally disputed report and published an apology.
The litigation stands against a Mr. Faisal Sherjaan, who works as a director for the Geo/Jang Group, the organization, BOL says, feels most threatened by their arrival. BOL initially asked him to pull the story and issue a clarification, but upon refusal took him to court. Accompanying this, BOL also initiated legal actions against Geo and Jang themselves, and their Editor-in-Chief/Publisher Mr. Saleh Zaafir.
Legal hassles and proper licensing, as well as operational and administrative issues, have delayed the network’s launch a few times now. The latest delay is another 3 months following the launch date of 14th August, 2014. Now Bol TV will be launched in October.
It is purported to be the biggest launch ever for any business in Pakistan, and is touting a media revolution upon hitting the airwaves. Facilitating the launch is a very active online media campaign, replete with social media pages and a competition with a prize of up to one million rupees. BOL Group also announced Free Life Insurance of up to ten million rupees to cable operators across Pakistan, in a bid to get prime slots on local frequencies.
The aforementioned competition involves guessing the names of 16 other prominent media personalities who have signed pre-contracts with BOL TV, other than Kamran Khan.
When Axact held its annual corporate event in February of this year, guests included Shahzaib Khanzada, Najam Sethi, Waseem Badami, Mubashir Lucman, Jasmeen Manzoor and Dr Shahid Masood among many others.
Ex-Geo News Director Azhar Abbas has also jumped ship to BOL to take up an executive position. Prominent in media circles and author of the book, ‘Army, Democracy and People’, Azhar Abbas is onboard with the BOL Group as President and CEO BOL News. The BOL Twitter account hinted recently that Najam Sethi will announce his signing with BOL soon. Make of that what you will. One thing’s for sure though, come October, come next year, whenever this channel finally gets underway, it’s going to make quite a splash.