RISE AND FALL OF SIRASA TV IN THE UK |
by Tilak S. Fernando in London
The curfew tolled the knell of parting day for Sirasa TV at midnight on Friday 25 October 2002 to the disappointment of the Sri Lankan expatriate community living in the UK. It was indeed a sledgehammer blow to their expected aspirations of linking up with their motherland on a daily basis, at least by sight and sound. Sirasa and Shakthi TV extended their transmissions from Colombo to Britain via Sky television on channel 816.
Right throughout its short life in the UK the demised television channel dominated the name Sirasa TV with their advertising in local newspapers as well during their own air time confining all programmes exclusively to Sirasa and Shakthi productions in Sri Lanka. However, only at the eleventh hours of parting viewers were thrown into further confusion by calling the departing channel as Culture Vision ( UK) Ltd and requesting ‘ annual subscribers to write to their accounts who are handling the closure as Ernst & Young, Sirasa/Shakthi TV, Disc, Princess Court, Wapping Lane, London E1W 2DA !
Sirasa TV was introduced to the UK audiences as a Sri Lankan TV channel with programmes directly telecast via satellite for the viewing pleasure of the expatriate community. It was said that the initiation for such a project came about after the host and hostess of Sirasa RASA RISI programme visited London during the popular Sri Lankan Festival of Cricket and interviewing the expatriates. A film clip out of their recordings during their visit was later used as an introductory hallmark when the TV channel went on a three months free-of-charge trial period to woo subscribers.
Just prior to the Sri Lankan general elections last year Mr. Nimal Laxapathiarachchi, a Director of Sirasa TV at the time, arrived in the UK to organise and put the final touches to the inaugural transmission of election results on 5 December 2001. It was said to be his idea to expand the service to Europe, Middle East and Australia to internationalise Sirasa TV.
For thousands of Sri Lankans living in the UK, who had waited impatiently for years, Sirasa TV telecast their very first programme, as promised. in a humble style by showing the election results on screen with an un-seen announcer reading the results simultaneously.
The first few week’s programmes appealed to the viewing audiences as they contained a wide range of interesting and up-to-date programmes such as interviews of President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunge, Ranil Wickremasinghe ( The leader of the Opposition at the time)and healthy political round table discussions etc. Direct news coverage on a daily basis became an added bonus.
There were no staff as such to appear live from London although studio facilities were available to read news or have chat programmes. Instead, all programmes were pre-recorded and fed into a computer and allowed the high technology to take the strain of rotating a pre-packed programme of six hours, four times a day, to cover round the clock transmission. Subsequently the package was increased to eight hours rotating three times a day.
The basic initial mistake made by Sirasa TV in treading the path of a sophisticated market was that they had not done their market research properly or adequately. In the absence of even an inter-action programme whilst the transmissions were being telecast on a trial basis for three months Sirasa management unfortunately seem to have overlooked the importance of such an exercise! Instead, the programmes that were chosen for a UK market happened to be mostly the ones that did not make an impact or fit into the UK Sri Lankan audience. For example during peak viewing times children’s programmes such as ‘Punchi Panchi’, Andare Mama were trying to compete with good movies, current programmes, documentaries or even popular soaps that were being transmitted by multiple of other channels from BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and hundreds of other SKY and satellite programmes. Added to such uninteresting programmes which were repeated and rotated on a never ending basis ‘ Lunch time music’ Ahanna Asai Gayanna and out of date musical shows covering the dawning of the millennium (2000), old films and/or teledramas did more harm than good in attracting new subscribers to Sirasa TV to survive financially.
One does not need to be a marketing whiz-kid to fathom that during a three months trial period one should try and maximise one’s strategy to promote one’s product in order to convince the prospective customers and to give them an assurance of their money’s worth ! In this regard Sirasa TV hopelessly failed their initial endeavour to attract subscribers to the extent they expected.
When Sirasa TV encrypted their programmes at the end of the free trial period many believed that the subscription rate levied was too high as one had to have SKY television in the first instance to watch Sirasa programmes. For this purpose one had to pay an extra charge of £10 minimum to SKY television before they could even think of having Sirasa TV on their screens. It was a general consensus that because of this very fact Sirasa should have concentrated on the volume of subscribers by cutting down their high subscription charge initially than trying to make a killing from the very inception. Continuous repeats of ‘ valueless’ programmes to a UK audience did not impress the prospective subscriber at all. True, Sri Lankans would have ignored even the expensive subscription rate had the programmes being not of poor quality, too old and uninteresting.
Nimal Laxapathiarachchi’s sudden departure from Sirasa TV could be regarded as yet another sledge hammer blow to Sirasa International TV (a name adopted by them by this time) at a time Sirasa was struggling to get their numbers increased on subscriptions.
Laxapathiarachchi was succeeded by Manukulasuriya who is said to have saturated the programmes with only cricket. However, after a very short spell in London he too disappeared from the London scene to be succeeded by a female who played a ‘late cut’ with cricket and substituted Punchi Pancha, Andare Mama with interesting programmes such as Road Shows, Discover Sri Lanka, Nature Calls etc., in association with Young Asia Television. She became the one to preside over the last race !
According to the critics, where Sirasa went off the rails was when they started to concentrate more on the Indian Tamil programmes. For instance a cookery programme came from Ashok Hotel in India and almost all the soaps came from India to this so-called Sri Lankan channel!
Towards the latter part of Sirasa’s life span in the UK a few interesting chat shows (usually week old) were introduced just before peak time news at 9 p.m., in a desperate move to survive. When even such attempts did not make an iota of impact to attract new subscribers Indian Tamil films and soaps seemingly started to dominate the channel, especially after 9 Clock news (from all three languages) till midnight. Between 4 and 9 p.m only Sinhala and Tamil programmes were made to rotate alternatively.
It has to be emphasised that London Sri Lankan community is a different kettle of fish. In some quarters they are very sensitive to nationalistic issues and with the wrong type of move and/or programmes their feelings could be fanned to the detriment of the serving TV or radio channel! In such circumstances the saturation of the Sri Lanka channel with South Indian programmes did exactly the reverse to what the Sirasa management expected out of the London audiences. Few Sri Lankans known to the writer openly declared this fact and withdrew their subscription as a direct protest while many others completely kept away from joining the channel.
In a personal survey conducted by the writer over a period of months, covering a substantial cross section of the Sri Lankan community, he was able to find out that many had not only constantly complained about the frequent repeating of programmes but had come out with alternative positive suggestions. Equally, many have had openly said that Sirasa TV was getting ‘washed away from Sri Lanka towards India’ and had reminded the authorities that it was not the original concept of bringing a Sri Lankan channel to the UK! Several Sri Lankans have reported back to the writer that in certain instances the Executive Officer had been very unfriendly and even suggested that if the subscriber was ‘unhappy at the way it was run for him to get his money refunded’! – which did not sound very professional but somewhat arrogant and dictatorial !
The vital question raised by about 80% of the samples tested was that Sirasa TV launched was launched and called themselves as a Sri Lankan TV channel for Sri Lankans in the UK and it was utterly foolish on the part of the management and unnecessary to let it saturate with South Indian Tamil programmes to the detriment of their own channel when there were many other channels for those who want to watch South Indian Tamil programmes, including the Tamil TV South For You on channel 817!
Sirasa TV maintained that they were a multi-ethnic TV channel and, as such, they had to hit a balance in scheduling programmes giving Tamil and Sinhala on a par basis in time allocations. However the Sinhala critics argued that it was of no use to them when there were no Sinhala programmes to watch at a convenient time for them at home after work and before they retired to bed! Another argument put forward by those disappointed viewers of the old programmes was that many such programmes, either teledrama or films were available in London either to hire from Sri Lankan shops or many already have such collections in their possession.
It is apparent that many with sincere motives have been briefing the anchor men and women who were in charge of the Sirasa TV in London at their own expense in telephoning at peak time rates, ignoring their own expensive telephone calls just for the love of having a Sri Lankan channel. There was one person who out of sheer love and frustration of the way Sirasa TV was running to the detriment of the company had taken the trouble, while holidaying in Colombo, met a programme adviser and briefed him of the impending dangerous situation with some valuable tips, which he regrettably thinks have definitely fallen on deaf ears or gone far beyond egotistical minds!
The other main failure or the collapse of the Sirasa TV in the UK was the lack of advertising revenue. Proper planning, having a professional team, an anchor man on the spot to deal with any situation and interact with the viewers points of view and complaints and suggestions, having a live studio and most importantly participation of expatriates would have been the basic ingredients Sirasa TV would have adopted before entering into an unknown territory blind folded and to make this worse sending ‘aliens’ to run the show! It was indeed a sad situation and on the other hand a very good lesson for any prospective entrepreneurs who are contemplating on a new Sri Lankan channel because the potential in the UK for such a channel is still there with, of course, the correct market research and the right professional approach. There is no reason, many believe, for any failures if ground work and home work are done property because after all we now live in communication era in the 21st Century!