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Abu Dhabi Media Summit: How TV has transformed Afghanistan

There are a lot of opportunities for media concerns willing to take risks in emerging markets.

Take one example — Saad Mohseni started radio stations in Afghanistan in 2002 that have since turned into the MOBY Group media empire there. The outfit now produces about 15 hours of original TV content daily.

Mohseni said having local media is crucial for the country as it rebuilt from Taliban rule. “For a lot of countries like us, [the media] holds institutions accountable, it lets people let off steam, this is how they get by from day to day.”

The median age of Afghanistan’s population is 17. The 35% adult literacy but 60% of the population watches TV. Mohseni said: “TV take-up has been phenomenal, people find a way to get access to TV and radio,” even if they are using generators.

Ex-Viacom CEO Tom Freston, principal of Firefly3 who is on the board of MOBY, noted that there is a boom in local stations in the Middle East. “In Cairo you could pick up 700 free-to-air signals,” he said.

“I don’t think you can overrate the Internet, but with the Middle East’s satellite penetration, viewership of TV is higher and more intense than the time spent on the Internet for the most part,” Freston added.

Having TV stations post-Taliban has also opened up society. “In a place like Afghanistan, people assume it’s xenophobic and unwilling to look at the outside world, but we have formats from Turkey, the US, India and South Korea. The media has opened up Afghanistan to the outside. They are far more accepting of different types of genres, different types of programming.”

Even with political regimes that were against free media, Freston says that the cat is already out of the bag. He said media could be shut down “for a few weeks, but it’s not a good long-term strategy.”

Mohseni agreed: “Iran has satellite penetration of 80%, the regime does go and shut down some things, but I think it’s too late, we cannot turn back the clock. People use new media to communicate with each other. The world sees what goes on in most of these places. Look at Syria, we get to see the footage of what’s transpiring in Syria on a daily basis.”

Freston noted TV’s power to change a society: “They get six months of social change in one month when satellite television comes to a village [in India],” whether that’s related to gender equality, hygiene, personal appearance.

Mohseni added that even the former-TV-banning Taliban needs the modern media. “The Taliban has also embraced [TV]. They watch it, they use it. If they have an attack and there is a statement they want to make, they reach out to the media. They can post it online. They have a Twitter account, they use Facebook.”

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