Primetime in AfghanistanAn interview with Tom Freston
Thomas E. Freston is chairman of the ONE Campaign, an advocacy organization founded by U2 lead singer Bono. Freston is also the former CEO of Viacom and former chairman and CEO of MTV Networks. In this video conversation with McKinsey’s Lynn Taliento, he talks about social innovation, media, and the development sector. In the Q&A that follows, Freston describes his work in Afghanistan where he is an advisor to the Moby Group, which owns television and radio networks there.
Taliento: Tom, you’re spending a lot of time in Afghanistan lately. What are you up to there?
Freston: I used to live in Afghanistan in the 1970s, in a different era. And I’ve gone back to work in the television business there, which sort of takes my career full circle.
Taliento: How did this come about?
Freston: I had the good fortune to meet with a young entrepreneur who had come back to Afghanistan and was able to see that there could be a private, independent television business. He secured a $250,000 loan from the USAID, which led to the creation of Tolo TV (owned by the Moby Group), which owns half of the 75 stations that exist in Afghanistan today.
One of the only things that has really worked since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001 has been the development of an independent media sector. This is a country where you can now buy a television set for $75. The sets are made in China, they just bring them over the border. There are 30 million people, and half have access to television. If they don’t have power, they just plug it into their car battery. It’s amazing the extent that people will go to in the remotest areas to watch television, that irresistible medium.
When you think that the cost of running the war in Afghanistan is about $120 billion a year, I’ve got to think this was the best $250,000 we’ve spent. It’s given people this window on the world, and given them not just new forms of entertainment and enjoyment, but it’s informing their world view.
Taliento: I would love to hear you talk a little bit about the programming.
Freston: One of the first big successes was Afghan Star, a documentary that we took to Sundance and which won a prize there. It’s based on a show in Afghanistan of the same name, which is sort of like American Idol. Thousands of people come to compete. This is in a country, mind you, where singing, television, everything was illegal just four years before this. Fifteen million people watched the finals. That’s half of the entire population. Why? It was just seeing the simple act of people singing, having a normal life, enjoying themselves, and seeing that it’s fine to do that.
We also have a show that’s like their version of 24, about a paramilitary police force, two males, two females, which in itself in Afghanistan is unique. They stop suicide bombers, bad guys. And this show is so popular that when the principals who act in it go out into the streets, they’re mobbed like they’re the Beatles or something. It’s pretty amazing.
There’s also a big news operation. In a country where very few institutions work, the fourth estate of television⎯not just Tolo TV, but many of the others⎯has been a watchdog for the people, in terms of justice issues, corruption issues, that sort of thing. It’s been amazing.
Taliento: Can you tell us more about Moby Media?
Freston: Moby Media Group owns three television networks, a large radio network, a production company, and a magazine. They’re basically in all stages of the media business. You have to understand that there was no trained labor pool in 2001. I mean, there was nobody. The country had one radio station that basically broadcast occasional news stories. So everything has been learned from scratch.
Taliento: And what’s your role?
Freston: I’ve helped the group organize in terms of staffing. It reminded me very much of when I started at MTV in 1980. You can take the production capability and move it up notch by notch and get better and better at doing things.
Total ad dollars run in Afghanistan run some $50-60 million a year in a market that probably most people think would be zero. But there are companies like Procter & Gamble, many banks, telcos, and so forth that are good advertising clients for us. So I’m an adviser. I help make connections with various places on the western side that could be helpful.
Taliento: Is there a need to bring some kind of Afghani programming to the United States and other Western nations?
Freston: There’s no question that Americans could know a lot more about Afghanistan. Most people’s sense of it is it’s a place populated by terrorists, and it’s ravaged, and it’s dangerous, and there’s all kinds of nasty people there. That would be your net takeaway from what you see on [American] television.
In fact, it’s a beautiful country with great people. And they’ve really been victimized by essentially two ideological wars. You had the Soviet Cold War invasion in the 1980s. And now you’ve got this radical Islam war. And if people knew more about the country other than corruption and drugs and war, they would have more empathy for what’s really going on there and what needs to happen to bring it into the modern world. Television is going to be a big part of that.