Television was introduced in 1964 in what was then East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. After the independence in 1971, the state-owned single broadcaster, Bangladesh Television or BTV, had limited viewers in some urban areas and was airing news, music, dramas, movies, games, and documentaries. Some Bengali and English drama serials were popular. The 1985 family drama EiShob Din Ratri was so popular that the busy streets of Dhaka used to get empty during its showtime. American TV serial Macgyver was also popular among viewers of all ages.
However, TV was an expensive media for people at that time. Even in the 1990s, a small number of people had television sets in rural areas. Those who could afford it used to watch weekly movies and dramas, and evening news bulletins. Absence of power supply was also a reason that held people back from availing of television up until the 2000s.
BTV was the only television channel in Bangladesh till the legalisation of the Television Receive Only Dish (TVRO) in 1992, which created scope for urban elites and the rich to watch other channels. Initially, BTV began to telecast CNN news bullets for a couple of hours in the morning. The scope widened as cable operators spread satellite dish networks among the middle class. The state-run BTV had a reputation of being the mouthpiece of the ruling party. So, there was a growing demand for independent broadcasters that would serve the public, not only the political masters.
Then came the commercial satellite televisions with the launching of ATN Bangla in 1997, followed by another commercial TV, Channel i, in 1999. But the introduction of Ekushey Television in 2000 revolutionised television as a media in the country. This third commercial channel got access to the BTV’s unused second terrestrial channel, using which Ekhusy Television reached half the country’s population. Its quality news bulletins and programmes run by trained staff won the hearts of the viewers and people were then seen glued to the station. The journey did not last long as a new government took over and revoked the license of the TV in 2002 over irregularities in the issuing of the license by the previous government. The new government awarded more television licenses, mostly 24-hour news and entertainment channels.
In their article, From Few to Many Voices: An Overview of Bangladesh’s Media, Brian Shoesmith and Shameem Mahmud write that since the mid-1990s Bangladesh has witnessed a proliferation of television broadcasters with terrestrial, satellite, and transnational broadcasting companies, all jostling for the attention of the Bangladeshi audiences.
Both NMS and Nielsen Bangladesh surveys showed a persistent increase in TV consumption. As revealed by NMS in 2016, the viewership almost doubled in just two decades—from 42 percent in 1998 to 82.9 percent in 2016. The urban-rural viewership gap has also been narrowed down as revealed in the survey. Nielsen 2017 survey also revealed TV is the most viewed media in Bangladesh as viewership rose to 84 percent in 2016 from 74 percent in 2011. However, it saw a little decrease 80 percent in 2017.
In Bangladesh, 30 television stations, 29 of them private, are in operation with the latest one, Nagorik TV came to the market in February 2018. A dozen more persons got TV license while licences of four stations were revoked while in operation.
A significant feature in having so many TV stations is that the two main political parties—the incumbent Awami League and its archrival Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)—that ruled the country alternatively since 1991, awarded TV licenses without due diligence to people (politicians and businessmen) mostly loyal to them, with an expectation to get their support. This is one of the major reasons behind shutting down of the channels on the ground of “violating licensing conditions.”
Another feature is that, like in other Asian and Middle Eastern countries, some Indian channels have gained popularity in Bangladesh. Zee Bangla, Zee TV, Star TV, Jalsa TV, and few other movie and sports channels have viewers in Bangladesh. Global news channels BBC, CNN, and Al Jazeera are also available and a large number of Bangladeshis are regular viewers.
Although a number of TV stations are now available, they are failing to provide quality news and programmes, comparing to the Indian channels. Both the state-run and commercial channels can be watched in many Middle Eastern, European and North American countries. Lack of trained and experienced personnel is a reason, but on top of that is the lack of professionalism of the owners and their partisanship. In addition, among owners and journalists a certain culture of fear (partly because of legislation) prevails and, therefore, effects investigative journalism.
ZayedulAhsan, a senior journalist with over 25 years of experience in both print and television journalism, explains it candidly: Ownership of the TV channels matters hugely when it comes to investigative reporting, expose corruption, social injustice, and violations of human rights. You have to have the moral courage and professional standard to do so. Most owners can’t do this as it may anger the government. They are not in a position to challenge the ever-powerful regime because they don’t want to lose their business interests.
The advertising market is not big and its volume has not increased alongside the pace of the media. According to different advertising agencies, the advertisement volume ranges from US$250m to US$300m and television shares two-thirds of it. As most media struggle to survive, there is an unhealthy race is found among them to somehow manage advertisement, in many cases, even at the cost of news and journalistic ethics.
The government follows a discriminatory policy in distributing its advertisement which accounts for about 10 percent of the total advertisements, as per several estimations. There are examples of newspapers with low circulation that get more government ads than the top ranking ones. Also newspapers critical of the government are routinely deprived of the government advertisements. The authorities have gone further to punish their critics. Three years ago, the country’s telephone companies that share nearly about one sixth of the advertisements stopped providing ads to Prothom Alo and The Daily Star after an unofficial embargo on supplying ads to the two newspapers imposed by the government.