NTN Niugini ~ Strangers in a Strange Land

NTN New Guinea

Above: The city of Port Moresby where New Guinea's first broadcast television station operated. 'Our' NTN.

It might be news to you - this was 40 years ago - that NBN built and paid for a television station in Papua New Guinea (PNG). The call sign was NTN which stood for Niugini Television Network.

Fortunately a photographic record survives - but the station did not. NTN broadcast to Port Moresby for just fourteen months before closing, along with Parry Corporation, NBNTV's owner for much of the 1980s.

This document tells the ever-fascinating tale of a headstrong magnate battling an indigenous government ideologically opposed to cultural imperialism. It did not end well for either of them.

Note: There are no stories or anecdotes from the staff. Please add some in comments section and I'll move them here, with your permission. 

Above: NTN studio complex and communications tower.

Kevin Parry's desire to be a global media mogul outstripped his awareness of what was required to venture in the realm of foreign television ownership. Or perhaps he lacked the deep pockets and guile of Alan Bond, his competitor in New Guinea.

Already over-extended financially and, like fellow spendthrift tycoons, blind to even the possibility of a financial squeeze, let alone a crash, he felt no restraint. With his fingers in Rockhampton TV (RTQ), angling for a TV licence in Fiji, and smelling out a deal with China Central TV, he yet chose to spend NBN's profits (not to pay down debt on his over-extended corporation) to build a completely new TV station from bare metal in a country where there were no TV sets in average households, no television advertising market, limited mains electricity outside cities - in fact no existing commercial TV at all. 

When, in early 1984, the PNG government approved legislation to have television by satellite the following year, wealthy households were already watching it on VCRs and via satellite in this geographically well-placed country. At the same time Parry's NBN Limited, the licence applicant for PNG's first commercial broadcast station, was pitching its case to Cabinet with a persuasive video (that only a TV company could so effectively produce) and 39 pages of slick marketing from the masters of hype.

Prime minister Michael Somare told New Guineans: "Like it or not, broadcast television will come to Papua New Guinea." But he was heralding the upcoming launch of Aussat that would beam Australia's ABC into much of his country. He might have been deliberately conflating terrestrial with satellite, for at this time NBN was lobbying for actual terrestrial broadcasting with support from both Somare and former deputy PM Sir Ebia Olewale.

Pictured: Sir Ebia Olewale, NTN's proposed chairman in 1984. He was Deputy Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea from 1977 to 1980

In October 1984 it was reported that NBN was "set to get approval to bring TV to PNG next year." The company's issued capital would be A$5.8 million. Parry Corp would hold 25%, the government 15%, chairman Olewale 10% - with the remainder held by local interests. 

Station staffing would be 12 "expats" and 23 locals, the latter to be trained in Newcastle at NBN's studio. 

For programming it was proposed that commercial television would be restricted to between 3.35pm and 10.40pm, while daytime content would be decided by the government and would comprise news, education, community services, such as health and farming, and children's shows. 

Back in Australia it was the very early planning stage. Cultural effect was a novel consideration at NBN, whose somewhat parochial (isn't that Newcastle!) staff were at least aware that they were treading new ground and must do so without treading on foreign toes. Expert advice was sought from organisations like UNESCO and UNICEF on how to avoid producing what was might evoke culture shock in a country without television. But the concern was with little foundation. Star Trek's Prime Directive needn't apply.

At right: NTN local staff hires were trained at NBN studios in Newcastle. NBNers, can you name this chap please?

Even back in the 1980s it was patronising to imagine the peoples of New Guinea would be overwhelmed by undiluted 'western' programming. City dwellers in PNG were as urbane and resilient as anywhere on the planet. Their likely blasé acceptance of whatever NTN delivered would diffuse through society, as it had in every country when TV arrived.

Such concerns were born of our colonial hangover, perpetuated by commentary musings in news and magazine articles that repeatedly painted Papua New Guineans as "stone age" or "tribesmen" and suchlike.

The Papuans were to surprise no-one except armchair experts and, perhaps, television opponents in their own country. It would transpire that they were far more appreciative of television than the burnt-out Australian viewership in its over-saturated medium. As was clearly revealed later in 1988 when Frank Mills, NTN's news editor, expressed no surprise at the ordinary viewers' reactions:

  [Our news] let local people to see themselves on television for the first time - and they loved it. We covered rugby league - a national religion - and travelled with the Prime Minister overseas.

So too did the CEO of EM-TV's (NTN's competitor), Gerry Thorley: 

 We find people here are natural, they can relax in front of a camera," he said. "They don't have the inhibitions that come from being brought up to TV as we do.

NBN staff on location were similarly relieved. One issue was how Big Dog might be received. Would there be alarm, riots, confusion, or just bemusement? Was the dog in peril of attack or, horrors, a spearing? No, of course not. He was totally adored by everyone, and enjoyed celebrity status wherever he appeared.  

At right: Sir Manasupe Haus, formerly Marea Haus in NBN's 1986 photo. The building serves the Department of the Prime Minister and the National Executive Council. Still called the "Pineapple Building" due to its shape. Built in the late 1970s, it was in use for about eight years before it began "falling apart" and was condemned. Renovation began in 2013 and finished in 2016.

In December 1984 a broadcast licence was issued to NBN Limited and opening night was pencilled in for PNG's 10th Anniversary of Independence, on 16th of September 1985.

It had been smooth sailing for Parry and the new NTN company. But as he should have known (and was surely told) politics in Papua New Guinea is not politics in Australia, despite the shared Westminster system.

At right: Jim Sullivan interviews Kevin Parry and (at a guess) Sir Ebia Olewale. (Cyclorama design is from the 1987 telethon, which tends to place this in Studio A.)

Parry misread PNG's adherence to Westminster democracy as being to his advantage. He knew that in PNG politics, though tumultuous with ever-shifting allegiances, leaders nevertheless stood down when they lose parliamentary majorities. But it wasn't that simple a reading. Unlike Australia, PNG was never dominated by one particular leader with a power base in a political party. In this nation of tribal allegiances politics was fragmented and party formations fluid. 

In 1984 Parry's political allies owned the day. A year later...

In 1985 the seemingly cosy dealing between NBN and the Somare government was being attacked by the inevitably-to-be-government ranks, whose main players (often described as Marxists by Australian media) were opposition leader Paias Wingti and future Communications Minister Gabriel Ramoi. An uncompromising nationalism was brewing that opposed western-style television and overt cultural imperialism. In concession to his opponents, Somare stipulated stringent controls on domestic TV, that "no advertising of foreign products would be allowed." 

By now NBN's staff and management in PNG must have been disconcerted even as work carried on. Opposition leader Paias Wingti gave notice in parliament opposing the introduction of television - even if that horse had long bolted, with widespread use of VHS videos and satellite TV, not only in wealthy homes, but in schools, hospitals, companies, and hotels.

PORT MORESBY, Sunday (AAP). — The PNG Government has finally signed an agreement for the introduction of television, but faces dissent on the issue within its own ranks and continuing Opposition attacks.

On Friday senior executives of the Newcastle Broadcasting Network and its parent company Parry Corporation, went to Government House for an official signing ceremony scheduled for 3.30pm. Forty minutes later they were told the signing had been postponed.

An aide to the Governor-General told them that it had been postponed to a later date.

"I hope you enjoyed your coffee," he said.

The ceremony had been called off because senior government coalition members moved for a deferral, pending discussion by caucus. Sources said yesterday that it was only after direct intervention by the Prime Minister, Mr Somare, that the signing ceremony went ahead (without the media being notified).

The opposition's strategy became clear on 28th May 1985.

Mr Wingti attacked NBN in parliament, accusing it of conspiracy and "highly irregular procedures" to get cabinet approval. Debate on Mr Wingti's statement was suspended as insults were shouted across the chamber. True or not, accusations were a handy bat with which to beat the government for political advantage.

Former Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan, who led the People's Progress Party, said Cabinet ministers and officials had been treated to rounds of lunches, cocktails and champagne by NBN and its lobbyists.

"Stranger still" was the award to former Deputy Prime Minister Sir Ebia Olewale of 10 per cent of NTN shares valued at more than 200,000 kina. Sir Julius said the shares . awarded to Sir Ebia constituted a "large reward for work not formally specified." Referring to a "special relationship" between NBN and the Government, Opposition speakers asked what guarantees there would be of an independent news service. ~ AAP

NTN had been intending to broadcast before PNG's 10th anniversary of independence from Australia, achieved by the nation on the 16th September 1975. That day came and went. The new opening date was "next year," as in 1986.

On the 21st of September 1985 Paias Wingti moved a no-confidence vote against the Somare government and became the new prime minister. 

Below: Gallery of the station in operation. Which does tend to be a spoiler for the accompanying commentary. 

Above: On-air station monitoring room and studio control.

Below: Romper Room with Miss Pia and children.

Above: The Romper Room set in the production studio.

While in opposition, Wingti had said the introduction of television was an unnecessary luxury. His more moderate stance as PM was now that the agreement should not be negated as it would "damage the country's overseas reputation." NBN's relief, if any, was short-lived.

Opening night was set for 18th July, 1986, but ten days before that date the Wingti government issued a statement: the prime minister wanted all television companies in the country, including existing cable, to delay either broadcasting (NTN!) or expansion of services until the conclusion of an inquiry was announced in February 1987. It meant yet more painful months of staff's waning enthusiasm and NBN's bleeding of revenue into this increasingly unwanted and unborn orphan of television in a foreign country thousands of miles north.

In what was his signature reflex, Parry ordered NBN Ltd to take the PNG government to court, to ask the court to uphold the agreement signed between NBN and the previous Somare government. 

The government countered. It "rushed through parliament" legislation banning the introduction of broadcast television until January 1988, effectively neutering even a favourable court decision by Chief Justice Sir Buri Kidu, due only days hence. Communications minister Gabriel Ramoi, one of Wingti's firebrands, said television without proper guidelines and controls would be reckless and dangerous. He told parliament "We don't want to be made into Americans or Australians." Amen to that.

Parry yet again challenged, this time directly the new legislation. He succeeded with only a half victory. NTN won the right to broadcast in January 1987, but only to Port Moresby. A heavy blow, as the project's viability assumed at least initial relays to Lae, Goroka, and Mt Hagen.

On the 21st January 1987, after years of delay and financial drain, Niugini Television Network (Channel 7) began broadcast. Six months later on 24th July, NTN's competitor Media Niugini's EM TV (Channel 9) fired up, having survived repeated legal challenges from NTN.

Above and below: NTN videotape room (VTR).

The bell tolled. It was, after all, 1987, the year of the Big Crash. Black Monday.

By year's end Parry had sold his remaining stock in NBN Enterprises and, after NBN had prised itself from his grasp with a management buyout, he was stuck with a hungry fledgling TV station suckling on revenue he didn't have. 

He tried selling it to competitor Alan Bond, who owned half of EM TV's operator and had much deeper pockets. But the government was adamant that Bond's company would not be allowed to dominate PNG television.

On 15th of March, 1988, it was reported that Parry Corporation had stopped broadcasting from NTN in Port Moresby. The company's statement read:

The station would cease broadcasting pending legal action against Papua New Guinea authorities connected with broadcasting affairs."

Which was face-saving code for "we're cutting our losses and running." As succinctly described by the AFR's Rowan Callick at the time:

Despite being on budgetary track, the company folded, chiefly because its Parry parent was going down and bills were not being paid. It was a local finance house, RIFL, which had funded the equipment to almost $4 million, which finally moved in on March 14 with security guards and told the staff they were out of jobs.

Alan Bond closed the episode by ending any chance of NTN's revival when his Media Niugini bought all of NTN's television equipment for just $1 million.

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