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Interview: Social Media, New State TV Change Face Of International Broadcasting

Egyptian protesters hold up a sign outside the Egyptian television center in Cairo in February during antigovernment protests. Al-Jazeera in many ways led the coverage of the protests.
Egyptian protesters hold up a sign outside the Egyptian television center in Cairo in February during antigovernment protests. Al-Jazeera in many ways led the coverage of the protests.
Simon Spanswick is the chief executive of the Association for International Broadcasting, a London-based nonprofit industry group that represents and supports international television and radio broadcasters around the world.

Spanswick spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz about how social media -- and start-up television broadcasters in China, Iran, and the Middle East -- are shaping a new landscape for international broadcasting.

RFE/RL: How is the playing field for international broadcasting being changed by the introduction of social-networking media around the world?

Simon Spanswick:
International broadcasters large and small are beginning to discover social media. And social media is incredibly new. I mean, goodness, Facebook is only a matter of a few years old and yet it has got this huge penetration around the world and people using it.

Platforms such as Facebook don't necessarily reach just the markets that their founders in America expected. But it is becoming a global phenomenon, and used in perhaps a slightly different way.
One of the most interesting statistics that I've come across recently is that one of the heaviest users, in terms of countries, for Facebook is actually Indonesia. The most daily updates come from Jakarta compared with any other city in the world -- and that's something that I didn't expect. I thought it was going to be New York or London or Paris or something like that.

So it shows that platforms such as Facebook don't necessarily reach just the markets that their founders in America expected. But it is becoming a global phenomenon, and used in perhaps a slightly different way. In places like Indonesia, it is handheld devices that people are using rather than fixed-line broadband computers because there is very little penetration of fixed-line broadband.

RFE/RL: Won't authoritarian regimes continue to try to control the free flow of information by cutting off the mobile-telephone networks that the new social media rely upon to function?

They are certainly finding ways to control. There is absolutely no doubt about that. But they also are running quite scared of what this new phenomenon is producing. We've seen it across North Africa and the Middle East over the last few months this year where it has been social networking and things like Twitter that have helped spread revolution.

Simon Spanswick
And, of course, if you are a dictator, that is extraordinarily worrying -- and we've seen two gone already as a direct result of social media fomenting dissent, which has never happened before. It's happened more recently with the riots in the United Kingdom where flash mobs have been drawn together using Twitter and Blackberry Messenger. So it is worrying even in democracies as well.

The spread of social media is going to continue apace. There is no sign of it dwindling. And going back to that example I made of the heaviest use of Facebook being in Southeast Asia and Indonesia, that's happened because entrepreneurs have set up mobile companies and have seen the opportunity to offer something to the user, to the consumer, that they can make money on. That's going to happen in other markets as well -- even in autocratic regimes across Central Asia and other parts of the world. Absolutely.

New Players In International TV

RFE/RL: Countries like China and Iran -- as well as the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera satellite channel -- are setting up, or have already set up their own English-language television stations in order to jump into international broadcasting. How are they changing the landscape of international broadcasting?

What we've also seen -- not just this year with the Arab Spring, but over the last three, four, five years -- is an increase in international broadcasting. But principally television rather than radio. There's been a huge investment -- by the Chinese, by the Iranians, by organizations in the Middle East who are spending money on creating new TV channels to broadcast to audiences around the world in English, in Arabic, in Spanish, in major languages.

And that is continuing whilst we have seen organizations suffering from budget cuts, such as the BBC cutting a number of radio language services and moving other radio services entirely onto web-based platforms.

So it depends where these organizations are based. For the countries that have been hit hardest by the financial crises over the last couple of years, we've seen a contraction, whereas new companies have been formed in countries that don't seem to have to worry too much about financial resources.

RFE/RL: Can you tell us more about English-language television that is being set up by the government in Beijing? How do they view themselves in comparison with long-established international broadcasters?

Organizations that have been set up by China's government -- both CNC World, which is their new international English-language service, and the CCTV services that come from China's Central Television -- they have a mission to spread good news about China, saying what a wonderful place it is to invest, what a great opportunity it is to come and study. It's those sort of things. And to encourage tourism as well, which is where they can bring in money from overseas.

And it's a fact that they want to be seen on a level playing field along with the, if you like, legacy broadcasters -- the broadcasters that have been around for the last 50, 60, 70 years. The BBC, Deutsche Welle, RFE/RL -- they are all broadcasters that have made a name for themselves in providing news and information to audiences all over the world. So they want to be seen amongst their peers, if you like, doing the same sort of thing.

Breaking Into The Market

RFE/RL: Don't these new international broadcasters have a difficult task to establish themselves in the global television marketplace?

It is a big challenge for any new organization setting up a TV channel, an international TV channel, to actually reach audiences and encourage people to tune in. You need to spend a lot of money on marketing as well as distribution to get onto cable networks and direct satellite platforms, because you've got to actually convince somebody to press the right button on their remote control to access that channel.

You need to spend a lot of money on marketing as well as distribution to get onto cable networks and direct satellite platforms.
And we are not seeing yet huge spends on marketing by a lot of these organizations. And that is why, I suppose, social media comes in [for] spreading the word. It is a very cost-effective way. Viral marketing over social networks can be very effective. We haven't seen that hugely yet, although Al-Jazeera, for example, both Arabic and English, get huge numbers of tweets. During the Arab Spring, the coverage in Tunisia and Egypt was tweeted the whole time and a huge number of people were accessing Al-Jazeera English via their YouTube channel in the [United] States for example.

RFE/RL: What can tell us about Press-TV, the English-language satellite television channel that has been set up recently by the Iranian government?

Clearly, they are broadcasting news about Iran. They feel that Iran is underreported or misreported in the West, which is where they are trying to get their major audiences. They are trying their best to get distribution on cable networks and on [direct-to-home] satellite platforms. They are a young channel and they have a lot of work to do to encourage people that are going to both carry the channel and then audiences to tune in. They've got to find a way of saying that they differentiate themselves from other existing international news channels.

Interestingly, I've been to their headquarters in Tehran. It is separate from the main state broadcaster, IRIB, and it is a very young staff that they've got, a very enthusiastic staff. It is not, if you like, the old guard broadcasting to the rest of the world from Iran. It is a much younger, perhaps more dynamic set of people putting the programs together. Like any new broadcaster, they have some teething problems and some of the production values need to perhaps improve.

RFE/RL: Critics say the new international television channels from China and Iran are seen as sources for English-language propaganda that favors the regimes there. What advice would you give broadcasters to fight against this impression?

Broadcasters shouldn't treat [their audience] as idiots. Audiences are clever enough to know when they are being misled, most of the time, and soon see through propaganda and lies -- particularly today where there is so much more access to information.

The market is changing. Everything is happening at such ridiculous speed. People are finding new ways of accessing information so broadcasters need to do that as well. They need to not just rely on traditional broadcasting where you beam programs out, but you need to engage with people on social media. You need to be part of a conversation. It is all about sharing ideas -- and that is what broadcasters are good at -- to have conversations and to start conversations with listeners.

I think that is what broadcasters can do. And they've got many, many more tools than they ever had before. I have to say that when I was a broadcaster [years ago], we used to get letters from around the world and they might take three, four, five weeks to come to us. Now, [there are] instantaneous responses via e-mail and tweets and through websites -- it is all so much easier to be part of that conversation if you are a listener, and I think broadcasters need to respond to that and draw these people in.

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