Exclusive: Data on Pakistan Govt Tv Ad expenditure from 2013 to 2022

Documents obtained under RTI reveal extent of Federal Govt Ad spending on private TV channels.

Every year, the Pakistani Govt spends a certain amount to 'advertise' on Tv, newspapers, and more recenetly, the digital media. This money is a direct transfer from the Federal govt to various private (and public) media houses and constitutes an integral revenue stream for these channels. The details of this govt expenditure have remained absent from the public discussion so far despite its obvious impact on the Pakistani political discourse. How big is this impact and how much have successive govts spent on advertising? New documents obtained by me under RTI may reveal more by looking at Federal govt ad spending patterns on TV specifically -- data that can help us understand a relationship between Pakistani govt and the media that usually remains hidden from public scrutiny.

So, how much are we talking about? From 2013 to 2022, the Federal government spent PKR 8.7 billion to advertise on various TV channels. This turns out to be almost 1 billion PKR per year -- much smaller than subsidies govt provides to other industries like say sugar, which could take up to 5 billion PKR a year. However, the story is more interesting than that, or at least as interesting.

A chart showing the total amount spent by the Federal Govt on TV ads from 2013 to 2022 - Yellow is PMLN govt and blue is PTI.

There is an underlying theme to what I am talking about, and if I write more I will write more about this. The underlying theme is about how the Pakistani govt uses public resources to prop up industries, and specific actors in those industries, because it is politically beneficial to those in power. This expenditure of public money on different politically aligned players in major Pakistani sectors, be it agriculture, energy, real estate, or media, is not done due to any consideration of public good but due to political expediency. It syphons a lot of money that could have been available to the public, and specifically in the case of the media, it distorts public debate and eventually hurts democracy, creating a feedback loop that ultimately makes the country worse off with each cycle.

We learn a lot about this if we look at the numbers over the years, especially if we look at what happened when PTI came into power. I would call what happened to the Pakistani media during PTI a 'big squeeze'. You can literally see that squeeze in the chart below.

This squeeze, I feel, was a major contributor to PTI's unpopularity with a specific segment of the Pakistani population, i.e. Media owners and their anchors.

That is not surprising, of course. The data tells us how it happened.

From 2013 to 2018, big TV channels like Geo and Dunya were getting approx PKR 100 million from the govt on account of ads consistently. At the same time, a channel with similar ratings, ARY, makes less than 30% from the same govt ads.

ARY vs the Others - dashed line seperates PMLN and PTI tenures.

This was not due to some freak of nature. It was by design.

How does this all work

The govt has a centralised system for advertising the various announcements, openings, propaganda etc. that it wants to disburse to the public. The system is controlled by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and allows the govt to advertise on TV channels, newspapers, and other media outlets. The govt has a centralised budget for this, and it is distributed to various media houses based on a formula that has never been made public officially.

To keep a tight control on the narrative, the government uses this opaque system to give a higher proprotion of advertisements to favorable channels and lower to critical ones.

This results in disparities such as the one depicted in the chart below comparing ARY to Geo Tv. ARY was a channel that was critical of the govt, and it was not given the same amount of govt ads as Geo, which was a channel that was more favorable to the govt.

ARY vs Geo - dashed line seperates PMLN and PTI tenures.

When PTI came into power, the govt decided to change the way it distributed ads. The govt had a clear agenda to squeeze out the media which it considered as 'outsized', and it did so by reducing the amount of govt ads that were given to these channels. PTI did this by reducing the per minute advertising rates for all media houses across the board. The then minister of Information and Brodcasting. Fawad Chaudhry, for the first time made public the rate list at which the media houses were given advertisements with the decision to drastically reduce the rates.

Media houses, of course, responded negatively. So dependent were many of these media houses on govt ads that this reduction in rates triggered a full blown crisis in the Pakistani news media industry and led to massive layoffs as well as allegations of 'censorship'.

This, when you think in terms of realpolitik, was one of the biggest mistakes PTI govt made because it turned the whole TV news media against it with a single policy change.

The policy was right however, all in all, the PTI govt saved approximately PKR 3 billion that it ultimately diverted to other important issues such as the healthcare scheme.

There are other interesting things you can see in the data. For example, cumulatively, ARY could have made PKR 500 million more had it been given the same amount of govt ads as Geo. If only it supported the PMLN govt. When PTI came into power, instead of giving more ads to ARY, it reduced the size of the pie across the board and gave the same amount of ads to Geo as it gave to ARY, hence not rewarding ARY for its support to the PTI.

Note that this does not take print and digital advertisments into account, which are also in billions.

In ten years, Geo Tv led the race in govt ads with PKR 832 million. Followed closely by Dunya and Express News with PKR 781 and PKR 709 million respectively.

When this money stopped flowing, the media became increasingly critical of the PTI government and cited some abstract 'govt clampdown' as the reason for the crisis in the industry. The real reason, it now seems, was the flow of the govt ads. The governemnt, I feel, does not need to advertise on tv channels. There are ample ways for the govt to communicate to the public. Using taxpayer money to buy time on TV is a way for the government to buy influence in the news media, which ideally should remain indepenetent of govt infleunce. Every govt does the taxpayer a disservice by spending their money like this that seem like legalized bribes.

Furthermore, another thing we see from the data is that by subsidizing private TV channels, the govt holds the whole industry back and makes it dependant on govt handouts instead of allowing them to build sustainable business models. This is exactly what was made apparent when the PTI govt stopped the subsidies and the industry collapsed, triggering layoff across media houses.

PTI govt, at their own peril, did something good by reducing the total amount the govt doles out to private media houses, but was not courageous enough to go all the way and turn off this toxic faucet. However, as PMLN govt comes back with PDM, we can see in the latest numbers that ads are on the rise again.

Back to the same old.