ARY takes over BOL: New trends in Pakistani media industry

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The embattled TV channel, BOL’s story has taken a significant turn. ARY CEO, Salman Iqbal has announced to take over the yet-to-be-launched television channel in front of a packed house at BOL’s headquarters in Karachi that generated thunderous applause. The merger/take-over has been made possible under a percentage formula agreed upon by the managements of both BOL and ARY whereby the administrative control of BOL will rest with ARY.

This sets a new precedent in the media landscape of Pakistan, and particularly the television industry that has so-far been marked with fierce competition and hinging the bets on the downfall of others. To their credit, ARY management was also the first one that announced to stand by the BOL employees, who were facing an uncertain future after the NYT expose of Axact, BOL’s parent company, almost three months ago. Under the circumstances, this presents the most viable alternative for BOL and its employees. The protests that they had been arranging during this period to press for BOL’s launching were nothing more than a shot in the dark.

The take-over by ARY and the resolve to launch BOL within the next three weeks must have become possible after some background assurances from the powers-that-be. If the change in command helps troubleshoot the impediments in the issuance of the no-objection certificate (NOC) to BOL to kick-start formal transmission, it certainly will be a welcome sign. This will also resolve the most pressing issue (future of BOL’s employees) in the near-term that was also the primary concern of the journalistic community and the government. In the wake of this latest move, only time will tell whether the decision of those who couldn’t wait that long and have already left BOL for other channels was justified or not? The way these mass departures will impact the day-to-day running of BOL in future is another debate altogether.

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However, there are some long-term questions that will spring up once the dust on the take-over euphoria settles down. To start with, whether ARY management will be able to keep the inflated salary structure of BOL and provide all those facilities promised to the staff earlier by Mr. Shoaib Shaikh? If it happens to be the case, how will Mr. Salman Iqbal reconcile it with the salary structures of employees working for other ARY channels? The second question pertains to the promises that journalists will be making all the editorial decisions in BOL. The editorial freedom enjoyed by ARY staffers so-far is as good or as bad as any other player in the market. One doesn’t expect a radical change after this take-over either.

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It is difficult to predict the future but if ARY’s almost 15 years old legacy is any indication, BOL will just be another kid on the block with salary structures in line with the prevalent industry standards. Regarding the editorial freedom, the less said the better. Even with those limitations, addition of another competitive outlet can only be termed good for the overall health of the industry. The ARY management and those associated with BOL will do well though if they get rid of the “biggest TV channel” rhetoric and be a little realistic. The illusion (or should it be called a pipedream?) that Mr. Shoaib Shaikh was so successfully able to create and sell, albeit for a whisker, is well and truly dead.

There is enough food for thought in this development for other media owners in the market. One does hope that this take-over paves the way for other such mergers whereby the media organizations doing well and willing to expand would think about negotiating a deal with other smaller / struggling entities. This will only make these smaller organizations commercially more viable and resolve at least some of the complaints about working conditions and delayed salaries.