News Television in Pakistan: Who's Watching?

News Television in Pakistan: A Study in Socio-Economic Differences

by Gayatri Murthy

Over the past decade Pakistan has been flooded with new cable and satellite television channels, many of which offer compelling news reporting to a television audience, who only recently had just one state-run source of information. Here AudienceScapes takes a look at who are watching these channels and how these channels compare to the imposing Pakistan Television (PTV) network. The Pakistan Television network (PTV Channels 1, 2, 3 see all popular outlets below in Table 1) still rules the roost in overall television ratings and it has the only terrestrial network with a national reach. However, the introduction of privately-run cable and satellite television stations in 2002 has caused significant changes in Pakistan’s media landscape.

A Snapshot of Geo News, a popular
private news chanel

The state run PTV News has been displaced by the private Geo News in the list of top 5 channels and many other private news stations such as Express News, ARY One World and Aaj are growing in popularity.

It was less than a decade ago, that Pakistanis had just one network on their televisions, until the government of President Pervez Musharaff finally deregulated the licensing process which issues cable and satellite channels. Today, there are close to a hundred private cable and satellite channels that are available to those who have access to a cable or satellite connection. These regulatory changes have had significant implications for how news and information is disseminated, particularly in a country where television is the overall most accessed medium. However, radio remains popular in rural and difficult to access regions.

Table 1

Along with channels featuring entertainment, sports and religious content, there are a plethora of news channels available in Pakistan today. The state-run PTV News channel has been displaced by the private Geo News (see table 1) as the top news channel among regular TV viewers, according to a 2008 BBC national survey. Other news channels such as Express News, ARY News and Aaj TV are also growing in popularity.

In fact, as people climb the socio-economic ladder, they are more likely to shift from watching state run television (PTV News and PTV 1,2 and 3) to private news channels such as Geo News). (For information on top media outlets broken down by demographics see Table 2).

Table 2

As can Table 2 depicts, those respondents with a higher level educational attainment were more likely to shift away from PTV Channel 1, 2 and 3 and towards Geo News . The viewership among this group of respondentsof Geo News was much higher than the national average, while their viewership of PTV and PTV World were much lower than the national averages.
The same trend was observed among those respondents with a higher income.International channels such as

The same trends in viewership occur for other private news channels such as Express News, Aaj TV and ARY News. While these channels did not appear in our list of overall top five TV channels, they proved to have a substantially higher viewership among those possessing higher education and income levels (see Table 3). Most urban cable connections give access to all the national satellite channels- Geo News, Express News, ARY News, Aaj TV; as well as international ones such as CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera. However international channels are not as popular as the national ones. For instance, 14% of respondents had ever heard of Al
Jazeera, but only 1% of weekly TV viewers had watched it in the last 7 days.

Table 3

These new channels, some of whom broadcast from outside the country, have helped change the how Pakistanis consume news media, by expanding their choices and challenging political norms. However, not all of Pakistani society has the privilege of accessing these stations. Only 30 percent of survey respondents reported having household access to a cable or satellite connection. This percentage does increase to 40 percent when asked if they have access anywhere. The largest divide in access to cable and satellite TV is between urban and rural populations (see chart 1).

Chart 1

In addition, differences in access to cable and satellite TV are seen across states in Pakistan as well. Access (at home or anywhere) is highest in Sindh province, whereas the Northwest Frontier Province, now referred to as Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, has a substantially lower level of access.

Chart 2

The data also reveals that access does affect which channels individuals watch. In urban locations, it is clear that Geo News (and to a limited extent Geo TV) is more popular than the state run PTV channels. In rural Pakistan, the opposite is true. In rural areas where there is a low availability of cable or satellite TV state run PTV claims the highest viewership. Partly to blame for this phenomenon has been licensing restrictions placed on terrestrial broadcast television. Pakistan’s broadcast regulator, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA), has prohibited the licensing of terrestrial broadcast TV, therefore giving PTV a monopoly only a non-cable or satellite television.

Table 4

Similar patterns can be observed across the different states of Pakistan. In NWFP, since cable TV access is rare, state run channels are the most viewed (see table 4). On the other hand in Sindh, the most economically advanced state, where there are high levels of access to cable or satellite TV, Geo News (and to a limited extent Geo TV) is more popular than the PTV channels. In Punjab and Baluchistan, where there is moderate cable and satellite access, Geo News is only marginally ahead of PTV News (by 5 percentage points), while the PTV network’s entertainment channels (1,2 and 3) are still the most popular.

The presence of several new private cable news channels is definitely an encouraging trend, as they provide Pakistanis with greater options for news and information. However, some challenges exist:

  • These non-state sources of information still remain accessible to only the privileged number of people with access to cable and satellite connections. Those without access have to be content with information from PTV, which is sympathetic to the government’s views. In addition, for those populations in poorer hard to reach regions even state run television is a luxury. Their choices for entertainment and news are largely restricted to state-run radio, illegal radio stations operated by religious extremists or international broadcasts such as the BBC or to a limited extent Voice of America.
  • This rise in private or independent information sources on television has also been controlled by many periods of control and censorship by the State, especially the 2007 imposition of martial law which imposed heavy restrictions on private news channels. Most of these restrictions were eased in 2008. But news journalists continue to face frequent attempts to restrict critical reporting. Pakistani media does however; also have a history of standing up to governments and resisting censorship- with private news television stations continuing to broadcast on the internet during the crackdown.

Related Articles:

Religious Media: A Cable TV Phenomenon

High News Consumers in Pakistan

News Radio: What Choices Do Some Pakistanis Have?

Attitudes to News and Information