This commentary by The Federalist was written mostly before the BBG Board announced Wednesday, December 18, 2013, major management changes at the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB).
International Broadcasting Bureau – The Standard For Dysfunctional and Defunct in the Federal Government – Information War Lost: The New Black: Recent IBB Audience Surveys
by The Federalist
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), or more precisely its International Broadcasting Bureau, has issued a press release claiming audience gains (“U.S. International Media Reach Record Audiences, With TV Overtaking Radio,” December 16, 2013).
Let’s bring things down to earth from this lofty agency pronouncement.
The Elephant in the Room
The global population is 7-BILLION. About 2-BILLION are impoverished. They are not running out to the local Best Buy to purchase the state of the art technology that this agency intends to rely upon almost exclusively at some future point.
Those same 2-BILLION are the most fertile recruiting grounds for international terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and others. “When you’ve got nothing you’ve got nothing left to lose.”
Remember, too, that this agency has been around for 70 years. In short, the agency’s claimed 206 million is the equivalent of a drop in the bucket, especially in key strategic global regions, like the Middle East, where the BBG is losing audience — a point conveniently overlooked in the IBB press release. This is the agency’s “baby steps” approach to the agency’s mission.
The agency is not setting the world on fire as a go-to international media source. Disarray of the Voice of America (VOA) Newsroom and slipshod handling of its websites don’t help things.
And it gets worse.
The flim-flam, Soviet-style, five year strategic plan, largely concocted by the team of International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) executives Bruce Sherman and Jeffrey Trimble is a full-blown debacle for US strategic national interests — the numbers in the Middle East prove it and a newly-found and probably previously existing audience in Latin America is not going to change it. In the short or long term, this survey is not likely to have a material impact on this self-made disaster.
Let The Games Begin
So many ways to trick up audience numbers.
And the IBB will use any and every one of them, as we suspect to be the case in these latest numbers. Here are a couple of examples:
The Survey Results
The IBB likes to make a big production out of the agency’s claim to transparency.
This is not a transparent Federal agency.
The IBB in particular is about as transparent as those big blocks of glass you used to see in some dentists’ offices in the 1950s and 1960s. You could see light and shapes but neither were distinct.
One thing you will almost never see provided by the IBB is the actual survey: the questions asked and the way the answers are grouped together in the “results.”
We are all familiar with survey questions that have a range of responses, usually a choice among three to five.
For example, a question about how often someone listens to or watches BBG program content could include a range of responses from “Not At All” to “Once a Week” to “Daily.” That’s a fairly broad spectrum.
What should be examined publicly is whether or not the agency groups any and all positive responses together collectively to arrive at the numbers it claims in the latest survey.
Sneaky Theft: Stealing a Radio/TV Station Audience and Making it Their Own
Another familiar trick is to take the projected audience for a radio/TV station and claiming it as the IBB’s. Radio/TV stations do their own surveys and make their own claims as to audience size. Or, one can use estimates of the population base served by the station. It is a very simple sleight of hand for the IBB to turn around and do the same thing for programs that it places on a station (and often pays the station to carry) and then claim the station’s entire audience or the entire population in the broadcast reach of the station as its own.
Another tactic is a gimmick we found to be true of the Voice of America (VOA) Indonesian service. In this instance, the service made placement arrangements with Indonesian radio/TV stations for their programs.
What would occur is the TV stations taking television feeds from VOA Indonesian and imbedding them in the program of an Indonesian television station (if the content passed muster with the station censors or editors). The VOA logo would often be diminished or “disappear” completely and the VOA Indonesian Service staffer (a US Government employee or contractor) would be identified as someone working for the Indonesian TV station. Sometimes the VOA Indonesian staffer would be identified as working in the station’s “Washington, DC bureau.” Way to go!
In addition, the Indonesian government has enacted legislation that prohibits dissemination of news by foreign news organizations to domestic Indonesian audiences. In order to get programs into Indonesia, particularly on the radio side, the VOA Indonesian broadcasts would be formatted to include “cutaways,” usually a window of five or ten minutes, about sixty seconds into the start of the VOA Indonesian broadcast. While announcers for VOA Indonesian would be reading the news in a VOA studio, back in Indonesia the station would have its own announcers reading the news locally. At the end of the “window” for the news segment, the station would rejoin the VOA program.
“Cutaways” are not an uncommon practice here in the United States, except in reverse where a local radio station, like WTOP in Washington, DC takes a feed of network news from CBS at the top of every hour and then about four minutes past the hour, on a cue from the CBS news announcer, returns to their own programming.
In this instance, the sleight of hand is the appearance that the VOA Indonesian Service is broadcasting news to Indonesia, when more than likely the Indonesian station is doing its own news broadcast. This is interesting if the Indonesian radio station is broadcasting news content that reflects an anti-US bias.
If the VOA Indonesian Service broadcast is also being transmitted via shortwave, then the shortwave listener is getting the news as broadcast from Washington, DC by the service.
This is not rocket science, folks. It’s a game. It’s a game being played inside the Cohen Building by the IBB and it’s a game being played by stations with “placement” agreements with the agency.
Where The Good Money Is: Let’s Hear It For The BBC
In October 2013, Tony Hall, the director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), laid out an ambitious goal of 500 million global users of BBC online programs by 2022.
At the same time, the reach of IBB global online audiences is claimed to be around 22-million at present, according to the agency press release.
Looks like the IBB has its work cut out for it.
You can see what’s going on here – the head of the BBC stole a march on the IBB. With that in mind, the heat is on for the IBB to look like it is doing something to be competitive with the BBC.
Hocus, pocus, dominocus.
In a near-miracle, the IBB now claims upwards of 200-million global audience across all media platforms!
Pardon us for being more than slightly skeptical.
The BBC is far from perfect and has its share of problems with its own internal bureaucracy. However, if one were a betting person, it is probably a safe bet that the BBC is more capable in attempting to realize its goals than the motley crew on the Third Floor of the Cohen Building.
Slamming Radio So We Can Get Rid of It
Aside from the overall numbers, what is also suspect is the claim that television audiences now surpass radio audiences for IBB programming.
It’s no secret that the IBB has long been intent on eliminating its radio audiences. Still the radio audiences hang on, in spite of deliberate attempts by the IBB to cut radio programs, language services, transmitter sites and frequencies, particularly those of the VOA.
The court jesters of the IBB will take any and every opportunity to put radio in a diminished role, albeit the difference reported in the survey is slight. What the IBB would like to imply is the beginning of some kind of seismic shift in its audiences – no doubt in part to justify the enormous and outrageous expense to produce television programs compared to radio programs. Television – particularly in the way the agency goes about it – is a millstone around the agency’s neck. The approach makes the agency overextended and cripples the overall mission.
Compared to Whom? No Longer A Prime Time Player
From the press release,
“The BBG’s largest audiences are in Indonesia (21.6 million), Nigeria (20.7 million), Mexico (14.9 million), and Iran (14.5 million), all countries in which the BBG has made strides in innovative programming.”
You won’t see two very important countries among the agency’s largest audiences:
China and Russia.
The Chinese have done an effective job of minimizing the impact of BBG programs, particularly its news content. In addition to jamming the agency’s broadcast signals, the Chinese government has all but shut out the agency as an impact Internet presence of some weight. The Chinese government has created its own Internet services, leaving the agency operating on the margins.
And remember, the population of China is over 1-BILLION people. The agency claims 200-million audience worldwide. Even if you reduce the likely Chinese audience by half, that potential audience is more than two-fold the agency’s entire global reach.
Russia – This is a good time to ask Jeffrey Trimble where his “Russia Review” is. You remember the “Russia Review.” That was what Trimble was tasked to do by the BBG following the full bore fiasco surrounding the Russian Service of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), mass firing of its veteran journalists, replaced by others until BBG Governors finally intervened and brought in Kevin Klose because IBB executives were not doing anything to address the crisis or even to alert the Board to its existence.
When it comes to the IBB, it is never a good idea to allow an “internal review:” too many people easily walking around with signs hanging off their backs with the label “the usual suspects.”
Breaking news…the BBG conducted one of its meetings on Wednesday, December 18, 2013. Among the items discussed was a new assignment for Mr. Trimble. It seems current thinking is to have him do something related to the agency’s news operations.
Given Mr. Trimble’s record, it is our view that Mr. Trimble cannot make the situation surrounding the agency’s news operation better. We fear he can make it worse because a major part of the problem at VOA, just as at IBB, is the anti-employee management culture. The implosion of the VOA Newsroom cannot continue and it must be solved by new, competent managers who know how to manage and inspire journalists.
We would suggest another assignment for Mr. Trimble not related to VOA and its news operations, if that’s what BBG members may be considering for him.
In Iran, the agency’s numbers are suspect. They may be explained by some relaxation of jamming and other countermeasures by the new Iranian government below the level of the leadership of the Supreme Ruling Council. And there may have also been a quid quo pro of toning down content by the agency’s Persian News Network (PNN) as part of the recent nuclear agreement between the West and the Iranian government. Perhaps and/or perhaps not. Absent independent confirmation, we chalk these numbers up in the suspect category.
But the bottom line is this:
Countries where the agency claims to have scored big, with the exception of Iran, are not in the first tier of US competitors, adversaries or US strategic interests. By no means is this intended to demean or belittle the peoples of Indonesia, Nigeria or Mexico. What is intended is to point out that US Government international broadcasting has conceded defeat in Russia and China and may be doing some voodoo with its numbers in Iran. In its press release, IBB is trying to hide audience losses in the Middle East.
Here’s something else to keep in mind: the Chinese recently made a successful soft landing on the moon with a lunar module. This is most assuredly a very big deal with unknown consequences for all kinds of other issues. In the near or foreseeable future Nigeria, Mexico or even Iran marking progress in space programs on this scale with all the related technological requirements that go into such an effort is probably not on their “to do” lists.
Also suspect are agency claims with regard to audiences in the Arab and Muslim world. The so-called “Arab Spring” is a bloody debris field: thousands dead, many more displaced and a pronounced uptick in anti-American sentiment in the Middle East.
While the IBB has been up to its machinations with audience surveys, the Pew Research organization has been doing its own polling. The news isn’t good. Negativity toward the United States continues to grow.
And this bad news is compounded by polling of Americans who are becoming decidedly turned off by the rest of the world.
In short, there seems to be bodies of mutually supportive data in which people generally agree that they really don’t like each other.
None of this is good news for this agency.
Last But Not Least:
The other large issue is: how does the agency do when compared to other international and regional broadcasters? The press release is silent on this subject as well.
If you are members of the BBG, you’d want to know because in the back of our mind is the feeling that this survey is an attempt to bolster the failed policies and strategies of the IBB – yet another effort to hang on when the lot of them should have been cashiered and checked off the agency’s staffing pattern.
At the end of the day, we don’t trust a word of any grand pronouncement coming from the IBB with its known reputation for being dysfunctional and defunct, one of the worst place to work in the Federal Government (#21 of 23 mid-size Federal agencies in 2013) with a known and intentional reputation for disinformation, misinformation and character assassination of BBG members among its established operational traits and characteristics.
If anything, such an unusual, marked increase (or decrease) in any audience numbers could be an anomaly. One must track data for a longer period to establish a trend. The way a new audience was found — not in the Middle East, where it declined, but mostly in Latin America — should prompt BBG members to ask how it happened? Was the audience already there and not counted before? What kind of VOA programs are being counted in Latin America? How long are they? What do they consist of? Are there any restrictions on topics that are covered or suggestions what to cover and what to avoid? Are they clearly credited to VOA?
Same questions should be asked for programs placed in Indonesia and in other countries? Should VOA English lessons alone be counted as VOA programming, especially if they are not credited to VOA? And even if VOA gets credit, does this kind of placement alone meet VOA Charter requirements, which start with news?
These are all questions that should be asked and answered even before any audience is surveyed.
And by the way, can audiences in China and Russia be surveyed with any kind of reliability, considering the population’s fear of the authorities, unless — of course — we are surveying audiences to non-political and non-controversial programs only.
Does a VOA Wall Street report prepared by the Russian Service and placed on a Russian TV network qualify to be included in the audience survey if it does not include any other kind of VOA political news meeting all VOA Charter obligations?
This kind of innocuous affiliate placement can produce audience numbers for VOA, but should they be counted?
Should BBG surrogate broadcasters also change their program content to non-political to compete with VOA?
The above question shows the dangers of this approach and the suspect nature of IBB audience measuring standards.
And generally, the trend for this agency has been downward. Its audiences certainly have not even kept with the global population growth in the last two decades. Pending future surveys, this new data may not ultimately change the downward trajectory of this agency’s future and its liability for US strategic interests.
At the end of the day, these IBB surveys should not be seen as objective. They are subjective and can be manipulated to show what the IBB wants to show, not what the American taxpayer needs to know about this dysfunctional and defunct agency.
It’s all part of the IBB game.
That’s how we see it.