US International Broadcasting and the BBG: The Numbers Game

The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has announced that its own surveys (These are not completely independent surveys. They are produced by a contractor, InterMedia, for whom the BBG has been for years the only major client. The two depend on one another to prove success.) show an increase in audience size. A bigger audience is always a good news, but in general the BBG’s commercial media mentality and its preoccupation with increasing its reach where it is easy at the expense of serving audiences in countries like Russia and China, where it is difficult, should raise an alarm. When countries like Russia and China prevent the BBG from broadcasting internally and use internal censorship, BBG executives respond by proposing the elimination of Voice of America radio and television broadcasts to these countries. No doubt the BBG can get bigger numbers in less authoritarian nations, but is it wise? And is it wise to propose Internet-only VOA news delivery to China, a country that has the best Internet censorship and hacking capabilities in the world?

Our regular contributor, The Federalist, also makes other points on the BBG’s audience size announcement.

US International Broadcasting and the BBG: The Numbers Game
by The Federalist

In its press release of November 15, 2011 the BBG claims an audience increase of 22 million to a projected total of 187 million people, based on its “audience data.”

Here is a short primer on “the numbers game.”

Everything starts with the questions asked in the survey. The BBG does not provide a breakdown of the questions asked in the press release or in its “research methodology.” This is important because no one can examine how the BBG collates the responses.

Typically, survey questions will provide a range of questions. Within that range will be responses that would collectively be categorized as positive and perhaps one or two responses that would be categorized as negative. Depending on the intended outcome that the BBG wants to demonstrate, one method used could be to lump all the positives together, particularly if collectively they represent a positive aggregate response.

Everyone inside the Cohen Building knows that surveys are an inexact process. This is especially the case when conducting surveys in authoritarian or controlled societies. A lot also has to do with how the survey is conducted, often over the telephone. If people live in a controlled society, the prudent thing to do is to be judicious in how one responds to anonymous surveys. Thus, depending on how things are going in the target area, the responses could be more or less of an accurate representation of respondent habits.

One would also need to know where surveys were conducted: were they concentrated in major urban population centers or did they include respondents in the interior regions of the countries surveyed?

All this being said, let us work with the numbers the BBG provides.

If the BBG numbers are accurate, an audience of 187 million people is not to be taken lightly (for reasons we will get to below).

At the same time, one needs to look at the big picture in the world of numbers. For example:

The total global population is put at about 7 billion.

Of that number, an estimated 2 billion are at the subsistence level.

In China, latest estimates place the population at over 1.3 billion.

In short, 187 million can get lost in the cacophony of the 7 billion.

Next, one should examine the statements made in the press release in support of its survey findings.

“…in Egypt, where Alhurra TV doubled its weekly audience to 15% in tandem with the Arab Spring…”

The question here is how does this compare to other broadcasters, including the regional leader, al-Jazeera TV? The BBG press release doesn’t say. This is a key point. If the BBG audience is fractionally less than that of al-Jazeera, public opinion has moved away from that projected by the United States. Further, in our view, the so-called “Arab Spring” is over. This number could be artificially inflated by momentary events.

Also, the BBG doesn’t say how Alhurra TV fares in the region as a whole. That would be important to see if Alhurra TV is making inroads elsewhere. Since the BBG press release is silent on the point, we can presume that it is not.

“Audience declines took place notably in Iran, where the government continues aggressive jamming of every BBG transmission platform, including satellite uplink jamming;”

Those pesky Iranians. They continue to prove themselves adept at interdiction technology.

But beyond that, another question is how much of the audience loss may be due more to lack of interest than as much to government counter-measures? Keep in mind that the BBG claims that its Farsi-language “Parazit” is widely popular in Iran. One would think that if this were indeed true, it would be reflected in its survey results. Coupled with other agency research on Iran, what may be more the case is that the programs no longer have resonance with an Iranian audience. Further, one must also consider the internal conflict with the Persian News Network (PNN) which some writers allege has become a toady for the regime in Tehran.

Also keep in mind that PNN, largely television based, represents a substantial budgetary “gas guzzler” for the BBG.

We’re saving the best for last.

“While radio remains the BBG’s number one media platform, reaching 106 million people per week, television’s growth puts it 97 million people. The Internet audience was approximately 10 million, with the largest online audiences measured in Iraq, Russia, Indonesia, Egypt and Iran.”

Bingo!

There’s no “while” about it. Radio is still king.

But most important of all is this:

Even if you take the BBG numbers at face value, when you examine them in the context of the BBG “strategic plan,” you can clearly see its disaster in the making.

If you eliminate radio broadcasting, as it is the clear intent of the BBG strategic plan, you lose over half of your audience. That 187 million becomes 81 million.

The television component is no bargain. It is the most expensive production and delivery broadcast medium, requiring more people, more production time, satellite time and fees, etc. In terms of cost, it is the least sustainable of the media choices available to the BBG. Plus, one should keep in mind, as the BBG press release points out, it is vulnerable to interdiction, both in terms of blocking satellite channels and in terms of downlink requirements at the receiving end. While people use satellite dishes around the world, the fact remains that certain regimes periodically confiscate private satellite dishes, in part just because they can. Also, in those places where the BBG relies upon placement on television stations (they are not really affiliates in the same use of the word here in the US), these stations often walk a fine line with the sitting governments. Put something on the air that someone doesn’t like and good-bye BBG programs or risk the loss of one’s license and even invite some jail time if the regime is offended enough.

Last but definitely not least, its global Internet audience is tagged at 10 million. If the BBG carries through with its plans to use the Internet as its sole platform for audio, video and text, it will have the equivalent of no audience.

About 70 years into US international broadcasting, how long will it take the BBG to move its Internet audience to a size approximating its current radio audience, particularly when one notes the ability of third parties to engage effectively in cyber warfare and/or, as in the case with China, to have well-established controls to block websites the government deems as undesirable. It is complete fiction to believe that the BBG will have at its command an impenetrable cyber defense against these attacks.

And there is another thing. The BBG has to pay to be posted to search engines. Lose the search engines and there goes the recognition and access.

“Audience declines took place notably in Iran, where the government continues aggressive jamming of every BBG transmission platform, including satellite uplink jamming; and Pakistan, where the media market is increasingly fragmented and use of radio is declining.”

This statement may not be truly representative of the situational reality. The truth of the matter is that all global media markets are increasingly fragmented. This is a significant issue when one considers the BBG claim that its intended outcome is to be “the leading global news network.”

With specific regard to Pakistan, audience loss may have more to do with over-heated anti-American sentiment and a whole lot less to do with the assertion that “use of radio is declining.” It is well known that the Taliban make considerable use of radio in the border areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is well known that the Pakistanis have become increasingly uneasy with unilateral US military actions within this territory. All of these things may have a whole lot more to do with the decline in the BBG’s audience in Pakistan.

Saying that “use of radio is declining” in Pakistan also seemingly contradicts the BBG effort with its “Radio Deewa” and “Radio Aap ki Dunyaa” projects in the region.

Let’s go back to the numbers:

The BBG is laying claim that the intended goal of its “new” strategic plan is to become the world’s leading global news network. What does that mean? How much of that 7 billion in total world population puts the BBG in the hunt to validate that claim? Hovering around 200 million according to its claimed global audience numbers, it’s a long haul to reach anything approximating a reasonable suggestion that the BBG is a “leading global news network.”

And keep in mind that if the BBG carries out its intended destruction of US Government international radio broadcasting, its audience gets cut by more than half. All of those people aren’t going to run to the Internet. That lesson was learned in Russia, contrary to the outrageous claims by the BBG of Russian audience increases. The BBG’s own research showed that its audience in Russia fell off a cliff when it ended its direct VOA Russian radio broadcasts in 2008.

The BBG has set a deadline of 2016 (its Soviet-style five-year plan) to reach its intended goals. Those goals, based on the BBG’s own numbers, would actually represent a substantially diminished audience with the loss of radio broadcasting. VOA director David Ensor essentially reiterated those goals in a recent C-SPAN television interview.

How does this intended outcome benefit the United States? How does this intended outcome represent a judicious use of US taxpayer money? Unfortunately, to all appearances the answer is” it doesn’t.

In the end, audience size aside, it all comes down to effectiveness. The BBG already a sizable “global news network” through its many and varied entities. And still, with all these assets, its penetration of global publics remains challenged.

One last thing: check the numbers of the press release:

106 million radio audience.
97 million television audience.
10 million Internet audience.

Total: 213 million.

That’s more than 187 million at the opening of the press release.

Well, we’ll give the BBG the difference. It’s still not enough to be “the leading global news network.”

Far from it.

The Federalist
November 16, 2011

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From the BBG official website:

BBG Broadcasts Reach Record Audiences
(WASHINGTON, D.C.—November 15, 2011) U.S. government funded international broadcasters reached an estimated 187 million people every week in 2011, an increase of 22 million from last year’s figure, according to new audience data being made public by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.

“We are pleased that people the world over are responding in unprecedented numbers to our high-quality journalism and active audience engagement,” said BBG Chairman Walter Isaacson. “The ability of our broadcasters to inform, engage and connect audiences through traditional and social media alike lie behind these impressive results and will be essential to driving future audience reach and impact.”

The record numbers, released in the BBG Performance and Accountability Report (PAR), measure the combined audience of the Voice of America (VOA), Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), Radio and TV Martí, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa). The report details impact on audiences around the globe including people in the world’s most repressive media and political environments.

The BBG’s PAR follows on the heels of BBG’s latest strategic plan, Impact through Innovation and Integration, which sets an over-arching objective of making BBG the world’s leading international news agency working to foster freedom and democracy with the goal of reaching 216 million people weekly by 2016.

This year there were significant audience increases in Afghanistan, where RFE/RL and VOA together reach 75% of adults weekly; in Egypt, where Alhurra TV doubled its weekly audience to 15% in tandem with the Arab Spring; and in Indonesia, where VOA’s aggressive affiliate strategy has boosted weekly audiences to some 38 million adults.

Audiences in many other strategically relevant countries held strong. In Nigeria, VOA retains its position as a news source of record with 23 million weekly listeners. In Burma, VOA and RFA reach 26% and 24% of adults, respectively, amounting to a weekly audience of 10 million.

Audience declines took place notably in Iran, where the government continues aggressive jamming of every BBG transmission platform, including satellite uplink jamming; and Pakistan, where the media market is increasingly fragmented and use of radio is declining.

While radio remains the BBG’s number one media platform, reaching 106 million people per week, television’s growth puts it at 97 million people. The Internet audience was approximately 10 million, with the largest online audiences measured in Iraq, Russia, Indonesia, Egypt and Iran.

Download 2011 Performance and Accountability Report (PDF)

BBG 2011 Audience Overview (PDF)

BBG Research Methodology (PDF)

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