In 1999, Canadian broadcaster, Ken Clark, moved to Fiji to take over operations of a television station operated until then by New Zealanders.
Over an eventful career in the islands, Clark grew the company into a Pacific broadcaster with interests in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands and a footprint across the region.
On the eve of his departure, Clark spoke to former Fiji Television News Director, NETANI RIKA, who first asked how difficult the decision to return to Canada had been.
Clark: I came in 1999. It was difficult. There was no work permit and there seemed to be a difference in perception. The Prime Minister at the time was focused on somebody coming in as an expat and I came to Fiji to be in Fiji. To do a job. A job that I was really looking forward to and in hindsight I was glad that we made the decision. But it took two years to get Sally here. So, interesting, Winston Thompson has recently been in the news as well and I remember him saying years later “I don’t know why you stuck it out”. But I stuck it out because I believed in what we were doing. It was pioneering television in the Pacific where it hadn’t been there before and there was a lot that we wanted to do. And so, right at the start I think both Sally and I were committed to Fiji and the role and the importance of the role. Many years later when I was in a court room in Amsterdam defending our decision to go to the whole country by satellite, it became obvious, again, just how important that was – could be and was. So, we made a commitment to come to Fiji and its 21 year now – 21 years this month – and we love it. We love the people, the people we met socially, the people we worked with, colleagues, loving the enthusiasm from them. So, we leave with difficulty. We leave only because when we look at our age now and the capacity of the medical services in Fiji at our age, we need to know that we’re living somewhere the medical system will look after us.
Rika: You came in 1999, straight into the coup of 2000 and then towards the end of your original role at Fiji TV there was the coup of 2006. Talk through some of the challenges of those events.
Clark: When I think about that, I think about the guys I grew up in the industry with, in Canada. I started fulltime in October 1961 and I think about a group of men, yes, almost all men that I respected. In the 80s I ran a CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) affiliate in the province of New Brunswick called CHSJ Television. Those people in that crowd, in that group of maybe 20 senior broadcasters would never believe that one of their colleagues would be off in the Fiji Islands dealing with a coup, dealing with a mob of people that came through the station and threatened like there were 13 people in the station that night. And as the mob was coming in the front, they were running out the back…
That doesn’t happen in the Canadian system. So, when you manage through something like that, that’s something on your resume that you never thought would be there and it’s – when you look back on it you think, my, what an adventure, but also, it should never have happened, it shouldn’t have been there. That one for us was very demanding…
Then when 2006 came along it was different. It wasn’t the same kind of physical threat, but we had that – I’m a believer in media freedom and in editorial freedom and here we were in a situation where somebody from Government is coming in and telling us what to put on the air that night. What we had prepared was examined and stuff was taken out. You may remember, you WILL remember I’m sure that first night we said OK tonight we won’t have a newscast – just to deliver a message. It was inevitable that this was going to happen. None of us liked it. We should be free and allowed to do our jobs in a democracy. Just a tangent for a moment, I found when I was in PNG that that was relative media freedom. I was there seven years and never once did the government try and tell us what to broadcast or not. So, back in 2006 we had somebody come and say “OK, we’re going to tell you what to do now’’ and that was against our principles. Back to that crowd in Canada, that would have been totally against their principles as well. So, yeah, it was an adventure, a challenge and we worked our way through it. I’d still like to see it today a lot freer than it is, but we’ve got this far and I’m a believer in the future as well.
Rika: Fiji television was pioneering in the region too with Sky Pacific and the introduction of satellite services, paid TV services in Fiji and the region, broadcasting Ratu (Sir Kamisese) Mara’s funeral from Lakeba, outdoor (sports and events) broadcasts. How was that possible?
Clark: Careful (laughs). Innovation. Little thing. When Ratu Mara’s coffin was leaving the harbour, we said to ourselves, how are we going to do that? And we had access to a UHF over the air channel at the time, so we used it as though …. Today we use internet services to make those broadcasts. Then, we saw that this UHF channel was there and if we had a little transmitter for that, we could use it to get that signal from the wharf and the ship going out of the harbour, back to the station and on air. So, innovation was the key. We used that old, outside broadcast truck until it fell over, Bit of a classic, I suppose…But it was a link between the past and the future. It plugged us into the community in a way that needed to happen for any local broadcaster, and I think that’s a key to broadcasting television in the future – to stay plugged in to the community. We had trouble with the transmission, we had trouble with the engine, batteries would go flat. But eventually we looked into a new truck, built a new truck, and that helped us go even further.
Rika: On innovation and staying ahead of the pack was the purchase of Media Niugini. Was that a difficult decision?
Clark: No. If you look at the Packer organisation (Consolidated Media Holdings Ltd) they owned Media Niugini and (on) their organisational chart Media Niugini was a very small component in a big, complex organisation
Rika: The Fiji Times in the Murdoch stable, so to speak
Clark: Good analogy, good comparison. James Packer had decided he was going to concentrate more on his casinos, his focus of the organisation was going to change, it wasn’t important to them anymore. They had established it in 1989 so they were broadcast pioneers at the time and that was important for Papua New Guinea. It was a very strong station in the market. We looked at it in October and by Christmas it was bought and paid for and I took over as CEO in January of 2005. I was there seven years until the end of 2011. It was fun, it was interesting, it was challenging. It was a good broadcaster in the same way that Fiji One is, delivering to the community. At the time I started, we had nine expats at EMTV. Just for the record EMTV gets interpreted as E, M, TV – that’s not it, It’s Em TV. In (Tok Pisin) that mean’s That’s television. So EMTV – there were nine expats. Over time that was reduced to just me and one other – the sales manager – and the sales manager became the general manager later. Good people, capable (laughs). When I first got there, I looked around to determine what we needed to do and there was a big tower at Burns Peak that served the biggest community – Port Moresby. We began to look at that and realised it’s had been there since the beginning. The tower was aluminium, but the bolts were not and a lot of them had just plain rusted out and a stiff breeze would have blown the tower over. So, one of our biggest projects was to rebuild that tower, Downstairs I have some of the bolts which you can see have just about rusted right through. So that was the first thing but later on we turned the studio and control rooms into digital and brought it up to speed technically. It was very strong in the market…If you did the ratings and looked at what everyone was watching EMTV was far and away especially on Friday night for the footy the most watched service and that was the case for a very long time.
Rika: It was such a good business that it carried Fiji TV through difficult times
Clark: Well it did. There was some financial awkwardness about it – 17 cents on the dollar if you repatriated the money from PNG to Fiji, the Government took 17 cents on the dollar and that made it difficult to take that money and put it back in to the owning company in Fiji – EMTV was a subsidiary of Fiji TV – so that made it awkward. But it did well as a business, did well serving the community, it did well in bringing up people, some of whom are still there, still contributing.
Rika: How important is it to have good people?
Clark: There’s nothing more important. Good people, dedicated people, intelligent people. My experience is that broadcasters are a breed apart. It’s not just about doing well; it’s about doing good for the community and they feel that service to the community is very important. Yes, as a commercial broadcaster you have an obligation to pay them and to pay for the programmes that you buy and to stay up with technology and pay shareholders dividends. At the same time, you have this obligation to the community. You have this obligation to make sure that you’re a part of the lives of the people you’re serving and particularly six o’clock news was a part of that. Not just because it was good to do for the community but because physically if you have a good audience at six o’clock, that sets up the rest of your evenings. People are there, they’re tuned to that station and that adds value. Your question was what about people? One of my fondest memories of being in Fiji was watching the way people have gone. Some have gone into – most often it inevitably happens that you hire somebody and they learn their practical trade in the newsroom or the control room or whatever and then they go into an advertising agency or they go into an NGO or they go into Public Relations. But you know, that’s OK. It’s an investment in those people that’s valuable for them and in a long way valuable for your organisation where they were working at the time and I think it will always be that way. The answer to your question is there is nothing more important to having good people. In their own specialties whether its finance, technology, news, corporate, programming, production. There’s creativity in all those roles and if you have good people around you as a manager your job is so much easier. You can rely on them.
The other thing we did is that we placed a huge importance on planning and we had a strategic plan, we knew generally where we were going to go for five years and we knew specifically where we wanted to go for two years and we knew what the deadlines were for delivery of that plan, who was going to deliver it, how they were going to deliver it and what resources they needed to use to deliver it and if everybody’s on board like that and going in the same direction then it’s a chugging on.
Rika: Give us a snapshot of television in Fiji today. A comparison of then and now.
Clark: There have been some decisions made that I don’t understand. In 2005 we signed on Sky Pacific. One of the reasons we did that was because a satellite feed would get Fiji One to everyone in the country for a very small investment, just over $FJD100 for a satellite dish and a set top box. You had to have electricity and a number of communities, particularly around the centre of Viti Levu didn’t have that but there was a signal there. And now for the first time people could watch the six o’çlock news for that small investment. As it turned out, that was a complicated story to make that happen but as it turned out it was being delivered across a very wide part of the Pacific as well. But what we said was, if all you want is Fiji One, that’s fine. There won’t be any subscription fee for that. You get your dish and set top box and if you want to watch Fiji One forever, that’s fine. So how do we pay for that? Because now you’re into the big money for satellite space and other things. And the way we decided we could pay for it was if we put a basket of pay TV services underneath that that people could choose to subscribe to and that would provide enough money over time to pay for the whole service. So that’s what we did. A few years ago, Walesi was introduced. By that time there were three over the air (free) TV stations – Fiji One, FBC and Mai TV – and they were all told you’ve got to put your signal on Walesi and by the way you can’t put Fiji One on Sky Pacific. I didn’t see the logic in that. It was there, originally motivated, to get TV to all the people of Fiji and now that was being removed. So that’s changed and it’s going to continue to change. The people who are running television in Fiji at the moment have to be very vigilant. Netflix is just there. All those other pay TV services from offshore ae just here using new technology. If you go back to the 50s in say Canada, people said uh, oh that’s the end of radio. Some people are now looking at the incoming services which don’t need a licence that don’t have the same controls as local services do. They’re a threat and they are to your audience, eventually. But if you watch and you stay up with the technology and you do the appropriate things for your audience and just like radio today which is still very strong, in spite of the television influence over 70 years, I think we can be just as strong 70 years from now – local television – it will be different, it will change and it will have to change based on what’s happening on the ground and in the sky at the time. But I think it’s going to be here and should be healthy.
Rika: When you say change, you’re also talking about methods of delivery?
Clark: Oh, inevitably. I don’t know what they are yet but when I was teaching over at USP I asked the senior technician at Fiji TV to come along and illustrate for our students how this new internet technology allowed a signal to go from an on-site interview with a person on camera to on-air live. I mean in the beginning, Fiji One used to take the tape from tonight’s news and run it down to the West and broadcast it e next day. Eventually we found the money to be able to get a cable link or a microwave link from the West so we could get feeds. Now, that’s easy. It’s a huge difference in technology and that’s going to continue, I’m sure. There will be things that we’ve never even heard of that happen in the next 10 years.
Rika: Maybe five
Clark: Maybe five, yeah
Rika: Any regrets? Not necessarily regrets but what could have been done better – could’ve, would’ve, should’ve?
Clark: There have been some things that have happened in relatively recent years that I would rather had not happened. The board – when I got here in 1999 the board had a certain configuration. Strong leadership, it had really good people and relationships we had as senior management with the board were healthy and continued to be healthy all the way through. We had debates about certain things but together …. The board’s job is to help set the direction for the company, to expect that to happen as planned and to step back and supervise – don’t get hands on involved. And they did that extremely well. Responsible, capable, honourable directors. Then a couple of years ago, ownership of the company changed. And that which the board and senior management had decided on – the development of Sky Pacific, the move to PNG, we were doing other work in the Solomon Islands, Samoa, Tonga – the company was healthy from a production, from a service, from a financial point of view. We never missed a dividend and that changed. EMTV Media Niugini was sold off, Sky Pacific was sold off, the work we were doing in other places was discontinued and I respect the owners right to do what they perceive to be correct for them. That’s what an owner is supposed to do. So, I don’t have a problem with them making that decision but it’s not a decision I would have encouraged or made myself. Owners can do what they wish with the property they own but I thought the direction we had been going in was a good direction. Good for the company, good for the people, the communities we were serving in those places. We were developing relations with other organisations around the region and I thought that was healthy. So, I probably regret that that happened for all the respect I have for – no I guess I don’t understand what was done, I wasn’t there, but for the respect I do have, for those decisions, those are decisions I would not have made.
Rika: Twenty-one years, what do you take away from it all?
Clark: I take away this. That Fiji has great potential. It has huge cultural heritage – both Indo-Fijian and iTaukei – it has shot itself in the foot a couple of time, pretty seriously and that’s a shame. It could’ve been much further ahead by now if those things hadn’t happened…Taken as groups of people I have huge fondness for the people I’ve met. A fondness for and a respect for things that people have done, decisions that they’ve taken both in their personal lives and in corporate or broadcasting lives. I think Sally and I made the right decision at the time and we’ve enjoyed almost every minute of it.
Rika: Would you do it again?
Clark: If I’d known what I know now would I do it again? (Laughs) Yeah, I’d do it again. I’ve got a little plaque in my office downstairs. It says – The world it not so much interested in the storms you encountered at sea, but did you bring the ship into port? And bringing the ship into port in a community like this was sometimes extremely challenging but also extremely satisfying. I would do it again, yeah.
Rika: Do you think you’ve brought Fiji TV back into port?
Clark: Maybe if I twist that question and ask – was it ever out of port? The answer is it was headed for the reefs sometimes, but we managed to weather the storms and steer it into the safety of a placid harbour.
This transcript has been edited for length.
Read more about Fiji TV in our latest issue: Death of a regional giant
Slowly but surely the once mighty Fiji Television Limited has started to crumble, taken apart from within by a combination of government pressure, acquiescent board members and questionable divestments.
Last month the company announced the resignation of CEO Karen Lobendahn and Manager Finance, Upendra Gounder. Lobendahn had been with Fiji TV for 24 years and CEO since May 2017; Gounder had been with Fiji TV for just nine months.
Fiji TV also released its audited financial statements 2020 at the end of August, and they make for sobering reading. Company Chairman, Deepak Rathod has attributed the company’s recent poor financial performance to the impacts of COVID-19. However since December 2006, the writing has been on the wall for this once blue-chip company, which has seen revenue fall from $FJD23.2 million in 2015 to $FJ9,076,306 in 2020 and net profits drop from $FJD1.63 million in 2016 to $262,544 in 2020.
How does a company lose so much over a relatively short period? Login to your account or subscribe today to read more.