Thu, 03 Apr 2003

Crisis tests Sumita Tobing and 'TVRI'

Tony Ryanto, Contributor, Jakarta

The financial crisis hitting TVRI is putting Sumita Tobing's leadership to the test.

Tobing, the 56-year-old TVRI president director, is known as a woman of substance who never says no to a challenge, no matter how tough it may be. She is doing everything to keep her cool.

The acute financial crisis at TVRI deepened in April 2002 when the government decided to change TVRI's status from Perusahaan Jawatan (company still financially dependent on the government but allowed to sell ads) to Perusahaan Terbatas or limited liability company (no longer enjoying a government subsidy).

Understandably, it came as a real blow when TVRI was excluded from the 2003 State Budget. The finance ministry's director general for budgeting, Anshari Ritonga, said he was not informed of the pending status change until January 2003.

Consequently, financial blues may force TVRI Makassar in South Sulawesi to go off air next month. Similarly, TVRI Semarang will follow suit as the network was currently not in a position to pay its monthly electricity and phone bills of Rp 77 million, studio head Effendi Anwar said.

Tobing said she could not understand why the change in status took so long to materialize. Until last year, TVRI, which has 23 stations and 395 transmitters, had an annual budget of Rp 150 billion.

Of the total, Rp 70 billion was allocated to pay TVRI's more than 7,000 employees. The remaining Rp 80 billion was not enough for repairs and maintenance of its transmitting equipment, let alone to buy or make programs.

In contrast, one of the nation's top private networks, with only one studio, 30 transmitters and 600 employees, has an annual budget of Rp 1.3 trillion.

"We have 23 stations and almost 400 transmitters apart from a work force of more than 7,000. By now you must have an idea how much money we need a year," Tobing said.

Talks are now underway between TVRI and the ministry in charge of BUMN (state owned companies) to accelerate the change in TVRI's status. But even after TVRI has become a limited company, Tobing still has to solve a mountain of problems.

A former newspaper journalist, Tobing joined TVRI at the start of her career in the late 1970s. She won a scholarship for a master's degree at Ohio University and returned in 1983 to develop TVRI's Metropolitan Channel.

She then went back to Ohio University for a doctorate degree in mass communications and returned to Jakarta in 1987.

In 1992 she left the public broadcaster to design the Cakrawala news program at private TV station ANteve. The following year she joined another private station SCTV and was responsible for developing the network's now well-known Liputan 6 news service.

Tobing is a news editor and she takes pride in it. She is a stern mentor who often makes her underlings shed tears. And only after a successful career do people realize how indebted they are to her.

After leaving SCTV because of what some people described as irreconcilable differences of views with the top management, Tobing was hired to launch Metro TV, Indonesia's first news channel.

Ironically, only weeks before Metro became operational, she again had to leave the station because of further differences of opinion.

She rejoined TVRI as president director in 2001 -- a time when things were in a deplorable condition. Fighting against all the odds, she managed to popularize some of the public broadcaster's programming, notably Dansa Yo Dansa (hosted by veteran vocalist Krisbiantoro) on Sundays at 7.30 p.m. Initially, the program took one hour but because of its huge success (some attending from as far away as Medan), it was extended to 90 minutes.

Other nightly live programs, mostly held at TVRI's outdoor premises and enjoying capacity crowds, feature country, pop/rock, dangdut and tempo doeloe (oldies) music.

Tantowi Yahya, host of Thursday's Country Road, used to have difficulties finding cowboy shirts, trousers and accessories he wanted to wear. Now he and a garment manufacturer in Bandung have set up "TY Western Wears", with outlets now in Jakarta and the West Java capital city of Bandung.

Yahya, who is also a singer, has completed an album featuring a collection of country songs in Indonesian and English. Like Tobing, he adores trouble-shooting.

Once TVRI becomes a limited liability company, it will be rid of bureaucracy.

"Our mission is to make the public broadcaster an agent of change and development. It is our hope that we will ultimately become a significant global player in the entertainment industry." Tobing said.