Zafar Siddiqi's book TV News 3.0 launches at Adab Festival
How does a man go from being a Chartered Accountant to a media mogul?
If you ask Zafar Siddiqi, it all started one night nearly 35 years ago when he was watching TV with his wife Seema.
“This was the early 1990s. I switched on the TV and at that time you did not have Zee or any of these Indian networks, just PTV. I was watching what was Star TV (broadcast out of Hong Kong) and the first programme was Entertainment Week India. Then I switched to BBC, which was showing India Business Report.” This made him think: why don’t we have a programme on Pakistan on the BBC or the Star network.
The next morning, he got up and called a friend in advertising. “I told him I know nothing about television but could you help me out with a business programme for the BBC?”
That is how a man starts his journey from being a Chartered Accountant to transforming into a media mogul. Today Zafar Siddiqi is known as the man who started Telebiz, CNBC Pakistan, SAMAA TV. On Saturday, he was speaking with talk show host and lawyer Ayesha Tammy Haq about the experience at the Adab Festival where his book TV News 3.0 was launched at the Arts Council in Karachi. The 3.0 refers to the age of digital and streaming.
His friend and he went to the Star Network in Hong Kong. Once there, they were told to go to the BBC. Once contact was established, a team from the BBC agreed to come to Pakistan. After doing some groundwork, the team told Siddiqi that if he wanted to do what he had in mind, he would need his own production company.
From here, Siddiqi went from strength to strength, with a show on NTM, to launching CNBC News across 18 countries in the Middle East, similar networks in Africa and SAMAA TV. And all this time, he kept looking for some book that would guide him. He found none and so he decided to write one last year to help anyone who wants to start a TV channel. The book goes into great detail on the financial models for the television business.
“CNBC as a channel, around the world, does not sell on ratings but on the audience that follows it who have the power to make decisions,” he explained. However, the business model in Pakistan, according to him, is that if you don’t have ratings you don’t get advertising.
“In order to establish a TV channel—and I’m talking about news, entertainment is a different kettle of fish—once you get the license which is $2 million, you’ll spend another $12m on infrastructure. That’s $14m, and before you know it, three years down the road you’re down $50m and have yet to see any advertising coming through,” he said, adding so if you have a spare fifty million dollars lying around, do come into the news channel business.
“In the rest of the world, and I believe it will happen in Pakistan, the model is subscription-plus-advertising so cable operators share earnings on a per subscriber basis with TV stations. That’s how TV stations outside Pakistan make money,” he said.
This led Tammy to ask Siddiqi how one maintains viewership. It depends on two things: content quality and editorial policy. “Digital is the future,” Siddiqi said. “We need to understand this to get this country from where it can jumpstart. Right now, people are groping in the dark and haven’t found revenue in it yet.”
So why do people enter the media business. Siddiqi swiftly responded that since he didn’t have any business interests in Pakistan he could say this: they do it to protect their other business interests and because it “opens doors” for them. He said that there were very few people who were in the media business who had been in it for a very long time.
And of course, quite a few questions were asked about SAMAA TV. Siddiqi explained how he had dealt with the fiasco of the anchor Maya Khan incident, who had chased couples in a park to try to shame them. Siddiqi had found out about it while travelling.“I called the CEO and told him that she needs to apologise unconditionally. I felt she didn’t do what was asked and [I] let the entire team go,” said Siddiqi. Maya Khan’s show was the highest-rated in Pakistan at the time but sacking her sent the message: you can’t do something like this and expect to get away with it without any consequences.
According to Zafar Siddiqi, “You can’t do this for ratings.”