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Mongolia’s (broadcasting) revolution

Mongolia’s (broadcasting) revolution

| On 10, Sep 2013

Mongolia is a country that is undergoing huge transformation. Since independence from the former Soviet Union the country has experienced an economic boom, fuelled by mining the abundant deposits of gold, coal, copper, and uranium. Now, under the leadership of Michel Rodrigue, CEO of The Format People, and his highly skilled team, that revolution is about to extend to the country’s broadcasting. Bob Jenkins investigates.

The focus of this broadcasting revolution is Mongol TV, a station formed by former engineers in the state broadcaster, subsequently purchased by the Chinbat family, and now run by CEO Ms Nomin Chinbat. Broadcasting in this emerging economy is fiercely competitive, with sixteen national broadcasters and several Pan-Asia services fighting for the attention of a population of just over three million. The capital Ulaanbaatar alone is served by five cable services. So, when members of the Chinbat family, attending an Entertainment Master Class, met Rodrigue, they asked him to visit them in Mongolia with the idea of transforming Mongol TV into a station that would not only dominate Mongolian broadcasting but which, in time, would also become a notable broadcaster on the world stage.

Rodrigue takes up the storey, “both Justin (Scroggie CCO The Format People) and I felt this was an intriguing proposition, and we were fortunate to be able to very quickly put together an impressive team, including Paul Jackson, Martin Fontaine and Marc Grenier, to visit Mongolia and assess the possibility of transforming Mongol TV in the way the Chinbat family envisaged. We quickly decided”, he continues, “that this was very much a real possibility and in the autumn of 2011 we returned and presented a three year plan, which was adopted by the Chinbat family, to implement this transformation”.

That plan was ambitious, focusing on four main areas: Infrastructure / Training / Programming / Branding.
Infrastructure was the plan’s first and most important element; the foundation upon which the rest of the progress of the Mongol TV Network could be grown and developed. One of the first things that Rodrigue and his team did was to design and build a bespoke OB unit. It was the first ever seen in Mongolia and permitted not only the live coverage of events, but also gave Mongol TV a significant advantage over all of its rivals in news coverage. “Mongol TV”, insists Rodrigue, “is committed to accurate, unbiased and up to the minute news coverage”. It is a testament to the success already achieved in this regard that Mongol TV is now an official syndicate of Associated Press for its international news coverage.

But it isn’t just news coverage that the OB unit delivers to Mongol TV. In July 2012 it was also used to produce the first ever HD coverage of Naadam, a Mongolian national sporting event featuring wrestling, archery and horse racing. In addition, in 2013 it will be used to deliver live coverage of further wrestling events as well as live concerts.

News coverage, however, not only plays a vital role in training, but also in spotting talent and the general development and implementation of Rodrigue’s three-year plan.
Mongolian television is awash with talk shows, because, as Rodrigue points out, “they are cheap, and relatively easy to make”, and, when he and his team arrived in Ulaanbaatar, Mongol TV was no exception. However, from the outset, it was Rodrigue’s aim to make the Mongol TV operation, and the schedule it produced, as close as was reasonably possible to that of a Western broadcaster. Therefore, an early decision was made that a crucial element
of both the training and programming plan would be the development of a morning show, Unuu Ugluu – Mongolian for Good Morning.
This was something that was initially the responsibility of Paul Jackson, a former head of entertainment at both the BBC and ITV in the UK. Jackson told DISBOOK, “the show we aimed to produce (at the time of writing the show’s debut on February 1st had not yet happened) would be a readily recognisable morning show. Somewhere between the BBC’s Breakfast show and ITV’s Daybreak, built around news, sports, weather, financial reports etc”. Jackson, however, could not commit enough time to see this significant element of the project come to fruition and so Pia Marquard, an experienced show runner, former head of programming at TV2 Denmark and head of Factual Entertainment at CBC Canada, was hired to be the executive produce the project.

“The overriding truth of the situation”, says Marquard, “is that there are very few people in Mongolia with any experience of producing television, and certainly not of producing live television. For this reason it was decided to begin with an afternoon show Naasha Tsaasha, (Here ‘N There), which would act as a training ground for both the onscreen talent and the crew, all of whom would later work on Unuu Ugluu”.

Marquard says, “we recruited the crew through a staff call at Mongol TV and on-air advertising, and I would guess I carried out over a hundred interviews, almost all young graduates of journalism schools and the like. I don’t think we have hired anyone as crew under the age of twenty-five. We searched for the on screen talent through the station’s management and people in the know, and have hired two main hosts as well as regular columnists / experts. We have one male and one female host. The male host is Bum Ochir Dulam, who is a Cambridge educated professor of anthropology and the female host is Otgonbat Banzragch, a bachelor in International Communications and currently doing a masters in Shamanism”.

The extent to which the entire process was a learning curve for all concerned is underlined by John de Tarsio, the DOP on the project. “The aim”, he reveals, “was to get the two presenters, who would then go on to present the morning show, to be comfortable on camera, and also ready to react of the cuff in live situations. It was also to train the crew and the cameramen on how to follow the live studio action while also preparing remotes”. The aim of the morning show was similar to that of Unuu Ugluu. “The goal”, says de Tarsio, “was to produce a show, the structure and format of which would be readily recognisable to a Western audience, whilst rooting the coverage of current events and topics very firmly in Mongolia and Mongolian culture”.

This was by no means the only challenge presented by Naasha Taasha – as de Tarsio reveals. “The initial intention”, he says, “was to find an empty loft big enough in which to shoot the show. But, not only did it prove difficult to find a space of a suitable size that could be easily converted and wired, but there was the additional problem that Ulaanbaatar is one enormous building site at the moment and so even those spaces that might have been feasible would be next door to a major building site. Eventually”, recalls de Tarsio, “Ms Chinbat took a wedding gig from a five star resort her family owns, moved it to a TV studio and we shot Naasha Taasha there – although this did require the building of special low stands for the lighting in order to create the warm and intimate feel that we wanted”.

Naasha Taasha ran for two months in October and November 2012, and is now off-air with, says Marquard, “no plans to revive it”. If that show was designed as a training ground for Unuu Ugluu, then a key reason for focusing on that morning show is the intention that it should also act as a training ground for future program development.
As Rodrigue says, “the great thing about breakfast shows is their ability to incubate talent, and it is our intention to develop on screen talent in Unuu Ugluu and then to spin them off into their own vehicles”.

This is an aspiration echoed by Marquard who says, “we will have a chef and a money expert, a fashion guru, an environment expert, an arts and entertainment pundit alongside one for sports, all wrapped around news and weather updates delivered every twenty minutes. “I can imagine both the chef and the financial expert going on to have their own shows”, she adds. As Jackson points out, morning shows such as Unuu Ugluu are effective incubators for ideas as well as talent. “It is easy to see”, he suggests, “that if a presenter resonates with the audience then you will want to spin him or her off into their own show. But”, he continues, “in the same way, further down the line it might well be possible to introduce new elements to the show, such as a quiz for example, which could likewise be developed as a standalone format”.

The development of production, editorial and on screen talent is vital, not only to the long- term success of this ambitious project to turn Mongol TV into both a national broadcast leader as well as a recognised player on the world stage, but also because all Mongolian broadcasters must operate inside a local production quota of at least 50%. But there are other elements vital to the success of Rodrigue’s plan.

The reality is that, though these production projects are vital in the long term, in the short term, the schedule will be heavily dependent on acquired programming. This responsibility has been shouldered by Rodrigue, though he admits that the process of sourcing acquired programming is one that “is just starting”. Rodrigue is looking for, “big US and British dramas – series such as HOMELAND, DOWNTON ABBEY, THE GOOD WIFE, HAWAII 5-0 etc., as well as kids programming and blockbuster movies”. His plan is to, “look for formats and kids at MIP TV and drama series and movies at the LA Screenings in May”. Of course, Rodrigue will not always be a part of the Mongol TV team, and so, as with all other aspects of the new TV station he is building, it is necessary for him to train the buyers who will follow him – unfortunately at the time of writing no names were available, nor was there a confirmed date as to when such an announcement might be made.

Also vital to the long-term success of this ambitious project is the rebranding of Mongol TV with a brand, as Rodrigue describes it, “fit for a youthful, modern generation of TV viewers while remaining true to Mongolian traditions and culture”. This task has been entrusted to Marc Grenier, a prolific, Montreal based, commercial director, winner of countless awards for prestigious accounts including Clairol, MacDonalds and P&G. Grenier and his team have created a new brand identity for Mongol TV with a original logo and a full graphics package that reflects the station’s new positioning, as well as a set of station idents for both winter and summer.

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