I want My TV in Afghanistan!

by Andy Kozlov

I find MUC not unlikable (Munich’s international airport). I don’t have much choice, though – it’s my usual connecting hub between Ukraine and Zimbabwe (though, things may change soon). This airport (one of Europe’s best, according to MONOCLE) has become my refill spot of the free major Western newspapers.

It is leafing through one of those papers while waiting for my South African/Lufthansa flight to Jo’burg

Tolo Tv logo

that I learned about Tom Freston‘s involvement in Afghanistan. One of the founding members of the team that created MTV (who has been helping Oprah to start a new TV network and Bono to save the world after stepping down as COO of Viacom in 2006), he is now busy promoting internationally the Afghan leading TV station, Tolo TV.

Launched in October 2004 by Moby Group (market share of 80% of country’s audience), Tolo TV is currently Afghanistan’s most popular television channel.

Through reality TV, dramas, and soap operas, Afghans are able to see things they hadn’t been able to watch for years. Women talking to men, for instance. That was forbidden when the Taliban controlled the country.

Tom Freston explains his interest in Afghanistan, “I first came to Afghanistan in 1972. It was the most peaceful, interesting place with amazing landscapes and I was very taken by its people. They were fiercely independent, but also showed a great sense of humor and hospitality,” Freston recounts in an interview with Stern Opportunity. “At the same time, the country was very closed off and removed from the rest of the world. Those days seem almost exotic to me now, as if I was on another planet.” For several years, Freston ran a clothing business between Afghanistan and India, only to return to the States in 1978 because of a political coup. Lucky for MTV that he did.

Freston co-founded MTV in 1981, kick-starting 25 years of legendary TV leadership at MTV and Viacom. Through sparks of genius such as the “I want my MTV” campaign, Freston quickly rose to become President and CEO of MTV and then COO of Viacom.

“The television sector and Tolo TV in particular are one of the few success stories in the country since the fall of the Taliban,” Freston explains. “In terms of a force for social change and gender equality, in terms of giving people a window on the world and all kinds of aspirational goals in their lives, it has made an indelible change in Afghan society that goes unnoticed in the major media.” Freston’s momentum does not stop here.

“We also set up what essentially is a pirate TV network that goes into Iran called Farsi One,” Freston continues. “We dub things into Farsi in Kabul, then program it in Dubai and uplink it from London, and that’s been a good success. I like that part of the world and I’m happy to still be able to go back, take what I’ve learned and reapply it for some social good.”

Having the social capital that he accumulated working in the Western media, Freston introduced Tolo TV management to a galaxy of Western media figures: Rupert Murdoch, Jon Stewart, Charlie Rose, Google C.E.O. Eric Schmidt, and Joseph Ravitch.

The introduction to Murdoch was particularly fruitful. They agreed to work together to form Farsi One, which now beams Turkish and Latin-American soap operas and action shows like “24” to a 120 million Farsi speakers in Iran, Central and South Asia, and the Middle East. The channel is half owned by Murdoch’s News Corp.

Moby has hired a hundred Afghans who speak Iranian-accented Farsi to dub the programs that it broadcasts to Iran. To try to avoid offending Iranian sensibilities, Farsi One offers no news, and it screens its programs, erasing or blotting out kissing and sex. Still, last month the chief of Iran’s state-run television denounced Farsi One programs on the ground that they promoted moral corruption, and Kayhan, a hard-line daily newspaper, accused it of “promoting dysfunctional families and adultery and portraying unmarried relationships and abortion as normal.”

Farsi One’s offices are in Dubai, in Studio City, a tax-free industrial park in the middle of what was once desert. Oprah Winfrey has agreed to air some of her daily programs on the network.

Last October, Tom Freston was honored by The Huffington Post when it celebrated its annual Game Changers event for his activist efforts with Bono’s ONE campaign, and his role with Tolo TV. His award was presented by Rolling Stone founder, Jann Wenner.

MTV co-founder serves on the boards of the American Museum of History, DreamWorks Animation, and (RED). He also serves as a trustee of the Asia Society where he funded a new department focusing on issues in Afghanistan.

Saad Mohseni. Photograph by Kate Brooks

Freston’s partner in this troubled Central Asian nation is one of Afghanistan’s most powerful men, Saad Mohseni, the chairman of Moby Group. “Saad is the nexus of everything going through Kabul,” Tom Freston described him for a piece that appeared in The New Yorker. “Besides the television business, he knows every foreign correspondent.”

In Afghanistan the old media are still new. Under the Taliban television was banned and the single, state-run radio station was dominated by calls to prayer and religious chants. 70-80 % of the population is illiterate, so the dominant media are radio and broadcast television. In 2010, it was estimated that 8 out of 10 Afghans own a radio and 4 out of 10 own a TV.

Running an independent TV station in Afghanistan is far from the glamour we usually attribute to the business. Once, Tolo covered a suicide bombing in Kabul, and the Karzai (president of the country) government complained that live coverage of such events allowed the Taliban to see how it deploys forces after an attack. The chief of security phoned and told Tolo’s staff member Hassanyar, “If you don’t stop this type of coverage, we will arrest you.” (This was not an idle threat; in 2007, Hassanyar had been arrested for talking to the Taliban.) With Mohseni’s approval, Hassanyar invoked the Afghan constitution, which guarantees free speech. “They totally backed off,” Hassanyar said.

10 % of Moby Group’s budget is devoted to security, and Mohseni’s SUV is followed by one or two cars with armed bodyguards who have not been told where he’s going. “Not because I don’t trust them,” he said, “but because they might inadvertently tell someone.”

Although Saad Mohseni is a mogul in Afghanistan, compared with media companies in the developed world his operation is a pushcart. Moby’s audience is clustered in Kabul and a few other major cities, where electricity is more reliably available.

(L-R) Tom Freston, Saad Mohseni and journalist Fareed Zakaria attend the TIME 100 Gala, TIME’S 100 Most Influential People In The World at Frederick P. Rose Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center on April 26, 2011 in New York City. Courtesy Getty Images

His biggest advertisers, six Afghan banks and four mobile-phone companies, pay a top price of five hundred dollars for a thirty-second ad. (A similar ad on the Super Bowl in the US sells for about six thousand times that rate.)

The company employs seven hundred people in Afghanistan and forty in its offices in Dubai. Mohseni complains that government-subsidized services like the BBC and Voice of America hijack his reporters, because he can’t afford to match their salaries.

By American standards, such an outspoken owner as Mohseni—whose news director asks him to approve stories, who recruits advertisers as clients for his ad agency while his news divisions monitor their businesses—would invite criticism. By Afghan standards, Mohseni is advancing the cause of a free press.

Cyrus Oshidar, who once worked for Tom Freston at MTV India and now works for Moby Group in Dubai, says that in poor countries like Afghanistan and India the media allow people to escape their misery. “It’s why Bollywood movies are three and a half hours.” The media “takes you away,” he says. “It provides hope. New images. It’s escapism.”

Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, describes the tension between Mohseni’s values and those of Afghan traditionalists: “The country is highly illiterate, highly religious, and highly traditional. And Saad is appealing to and creating a new young group of people in the urban areas. There’s a brilliance to what he’s doing, but it’s also risky. It’s a drama. I can’t imagine any other country in the world where it would be played out with this much intensity.”

But Tolo TV’s executive is already aiming further. On the whiteboard across from the desk in his small glassed-in Dubai office are the words “Yemen,” “Pakistan,” “Jordan,” “Iraq,” “U.A.E.,” “Palestine,” “Sudan,” “Somalia,” “Uzbekistan,” and “U.S. Muslims.” Asked to explain their meaning, Mohseni said that he sees some of the world’s most troubled places as good media investments. “In our part of the world, old media still works,” he said. “Despite the dangers, if you have enough diversity it’s a good business to be in.” If Moby can have TV platforms in seven or eight countries, he said, it can reduce its programming costs by running the same content translated into the local language.

“The Arab markets are a virgin market” for local television, Mohseni said. “There are no viable TV stations in these countries—Yemen, Iraq, Jordan.” He sees advertising spending doubling every five years in some of these countries. Like Afghanistan, all have populations bursting with young people. In five years, he predicted in 2010, Iraq will become the second-largest oil producer in the Middle East, creating a vast consumer marketplace. Jordan, he said, is a 200-million-dollar ad market, with little of this money going to television.

You can write to Andy Kozlov on a.kozlov@steppesinsync.com

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