Is Bhutan Ready for "Millionaire"?

Or Do They Just Want Their MTV?

December 26, 2000

THIMPHU, Bhutan -- Is Bhutan ready for "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire"?

Just 40 years after this isolated Himalayan kingdom of 600,000 Buddhists did away with serfdom, 20 years after opening its first airport and only a year after introducing broadcast television, is Bhutan prepared to take the leap into unbridled voyeuristic greed?

The national television company doesn't think so.

A proposal for a local version of the popular British game show, already copied with great success in countries around the world -- including America, where it quickly reached cult status -- was rejected as too corrupting. And it wasn't even really a million dollars.

"My show would have been for 100,000 ngultrum," or about US$2,200, said Tashi Wangdi, a former journalist who proposed the idea.

Still, he's not too disappointed, as he did manage to buy the rights to nearly half of Bhutan's airtime, which is controlled by the Bhutan Broadcasting Service, or BBS.

"This is the business of the future," said Wangdi. "It has a lot of potential. Plus at the moment there's no competition."

After long being closed off to the outside world, Bhutan is experiencing a bit of a media revolution: It introduced the Internet and broadcast TV last year; boosted its radio programming by 50 percent this year; and is seeing a surge of interest in indigenous filmmaking.

But by far the most revolutionary medium to come to Bhutan has been cable TV.

"You just sit down and surf through the channels," said Lhendup Yangzom, an 18-year-old high school senior, as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

While BBS is available only in the capital city of Thimphu (pronounced, "TIM-pooh"), private cable operators have wired up cities throughout Bhutan to dozens of foreign channels, including CNN, MTV, HBO and a slew of Hong Kong and Indian channels.

Some households previously had access to foreign channels through illegal satellite dishes, and many had long been watching American and Indian movies on cassette. But with the arrival of cable, video rentals have plummeted while the number of TV sets in Thimphu has at least doubled. Two years ago, one-quarter of the city's 5,000 households had a tube. Now there are some 3,000 cable subscribers.

All this has been cause for much collective hand-wringing.

"TV is quite a serious concern right now," said Kinley Dorji, editor-in-chief of Kuensel, Bhutan's only newspaper. "The basic danger is, it's a very rural and oral society. We have not had time to develop a literary tradition. Now you put a box in front of people and they won't have time to pick up a book. You jump from the oral to the audio-visual."

While not going so far as to say TV should be banned, Dorji is worried Bhutan will fall another victim to television's worldwide bid for cultural dominance.

"Bhutan has always been vulnerable," he said. "This makes it more vulnerable."

No studies have been done, but Kinga Singye, executive director of BBS, said he sees young and old alike falling under the spell of the blue screen.

"Now people don't have as much time for prayer, even the older generation," he said. "Children have less time for outdoor activities."

Still, Bhutan is eager to develop its own programming. After all, the government lifted the ban on TV last year so people could see their own culture reflected on the boob tube. The problem, however, is that TV came before Bhutanese TV programs were ready.

Instead, Bhutanese are watching David Letterman, Japanese cartoons, Hindi soap operas, European soccer, even Chinese TV. They say it all seems more interesting than the one hour each day of BBS programming, which consists of a half hour of news at 8 p.m. -- 15 minutes in Dzongkha, the national language, and 15 minutes in English -- plus a half-hour cultural program on Bhutan or a foreign documentary.

The hour contains no commercials. But it's not for lack of trying. Ironically, although Bhutan is struggling to keep consumerism from taking hold, BBS needs to sell ads to support itself and break free of government subsidies.

"We're under pressure to generate revenue," said Singye, BBS' executive director. "It's also important for the independence of our media."

A former diplomat who was recalled from Bhutan's United Nations mission in Geneva to guide the development of television, Singye has the air of a man overwhelmed by an impossible task.

The government would like BBS to expand broadcasting to the entire country in two years, but Singye is not optimistic given the lack of equipment and training. BBS doesn't even have a proper studio in Thimphu. What's more, it has not been able to sell a single ad.

"(Businesses say) 'Everybody knows me; why the hell should I advertise?"' said Dorji, the newspaper editor, who also has trouble selling ads to local businesses in this tiny capital of 40,000.

This is where Wangdi, the former journalist, saw his opening. He figures he can sell ads to India, the origin of most products sold in Bhutan, and use the money to produce shows for the five half-hour slots he bought from BBS. The game show was rejected, but a cooking show, high school quiz show and cultural heritage shows were approved. Broadcast begins next April.

TV is just the beginning for Wangdi. He has also set up the Motion Picture Association of Bhutan for the growing number of budding filmmakers here. Already it has 16 members, all but three of whom got into film in the last two years.

Although its neighbor to the south, India, has the world's largest film industry, Bhutan has produced only 26 feature films, five of them in the last year, according to Wangdi. His goal is to send two international-quality films each year to festivals around the world.

Judging by a new Bhutanese drama, "Love is Cruel," which had poor sound and lighting and amateurish acting, the industry has a ways to go. Wangdi said directors sometimes just write a synopsis, then make up the dialogue on the set. Still, it drew a full house to Thimphu's one theater on a recent Tuesday evening. The audience seemed happy just to see Bhutanese actors on the big screen.

Wangdi is working on a script about a young man with AIDS "from a rich dysfunctional family."

"It will have universal appeal," he said with a smile.

As educators and policy-makers continue the debate over television, young people say there's no question: TV is good for you.

"It opens up our mind," said Karma Dorji, 19, who said he likes the National Geographic channel.

They say they can learn about the outside world. In a country where most people probably cannot name the American president, 19-year-old Sangay Wangdi, the son of farmers, was up to date on the post-election mess.

"Bush will win, I think," he said prophetically, two weeks before Al Gore conceded the election.

Which candidate does he prefer? "I like Bush better," he said confidently. "His father is a very known person."

Karma Yeshey, principal of Yangchenphug High School in Thimphu, allows that TV may have some positive effects, such as preventing students from going out and drinking or helping with their English.

But it's not just news and nature programs they're watching. They're also opening up their young minds to WWF. That's wrestling, not wildlife.

The superhuman fighting and pounding and name-calling holds endless fascination for these young Buddhists. They're not quite sure if it's real or fake, but many cannot tear their eyes away.

Yeshey said most students know the names of the wrestlers.

"I don't know whether it's wrong to know," he said, still unsure if TV is a good thing.

All the hoopla surrounding film and television has gone unnoticed by the majority of Bhutan's population, subsistence farmers and yak herders from the subtropical foothills to the high mountaintops. If TV brings the world to Bhutan's urbanites, radio brings Bhutan to the largely illiterate rural class scattered in remote villages.

The most popular radio program on BBS, which broadcasts 63 hours a week of news, music and farming tips, is the request show, where announcers read messages for friends and family in other parts of the country. For some, it's their only means of communicating.

"It's the most effective mass media and I think it will be for a long time," said BBS' Singye.

Those with relatives in the city may be lucky enough to get a used satellite dish, no longer needed now that urbanites have cable. Singye's sister gave her old dish to their father, who retired to his village in eastern Bhutan.

"My father said it's very good to get laborers to come to the house because they know at the end of the day they can get one or two hours of TV," he said.

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