Nepal may have been one of the last countries in Asia to have its own television station, but it now has more channels than most other countries this size in the region.
Since the government loosened its regulations in 2001, the private sector has invested heavily in licenses and broadcast equipment. In addition to two state-owned channels (NTV and NTV Metro) there are Kantipur Television (KTV), Image Metro, Channel Nepal, and Nepal One uplinked from India. Two more terrestrial channels, Shangrila and Avenues are due to start up soon.
"It's a good thing that we have so much choice, but my concern is whether the investors can get their returns from such an expensive venture in such a crowded market," says Durga Nath Sharma, general manager of NTV.
More channels means more competition, and Sharma thinks that viewers will ultimately benefit. "The age of television monopoly is over," he says, hoping that the competition betweenthe new players will be "healthy".
So far, the indications are that overall standards have improved. The stations are heavy on entertainment, but these are mostly Nepali-language drama and music. News and current affairs has been largely free of government control, making television an important source of visual news.
Says Sharma: "Our people are now thirsting for information and news rather than just entertainment. Times have changed and people will no longer sit in front of their sets just to listen to a minister's speech."
As in India, the advent of private channels has forced state media to be more creative and professional as well. NTV news is still heavy on government viewpoints on politics, but there is more freedom to report from the field and the studio talk shows are fair and balanced. "People can no longer question our professionalism," says NTV's chief editor, Rajendra Deb Acharya.
Responding to audience surveys that show a hunger for news, most private channels have balanaced their entertainment content with news and current affairs. Channel Nepal and Nepal One compete with hourly news updates. Channel Nepal airs about six hours of news bulletins a day. KTV relies on its vast print news network to provide extensive nationwide coverage.
Both state and private channels also have programs that are getting big national followings. Among the highest-rated NTV programs are Hijo Ajako Kura, Ankhi Jhyal, Bahas, Chintan Manan, Disanirdesh and Jagriti. Kishore Nepal's Mat Abhimat has now got a wide viewership all over the country.
KTV'S unique talk program, It's My Show allows experts from all sectors to run the program with their own studio guests. Interviewing well known Nepalis has become a favourite (and cheap) way to fill airtime and most channels now have versions of Dishanirdesh. Nepal One's Nepal's Most Wanted, patterned after a US program is drawing large numbers of viewers.
But within the stations, producers and owners complain of the lack of trained staff. Senior posts are handed over to print journalists with scant knowledge of the audiovisual medium. Most talk shows therefore resemble television versions of print interviews.
"It is not easy to run a television show and the cost production is high," says filmmaker Mohan Mainali, "but television must fulfil its public service mandate by airing magazine programs with news features and short documentaries based on current affairs."
Mainali, who started the environmental documentary program, Ankhi Jhyal, says it is time for private channels to also venture outside the Valley. NTV's Mat Abhimat has huge ratings mainly because it's host Kishore Nepal crisscrosses the country allowing people to speak their minds without much interference.
However, it is in entertainment that Nepali channels have a lot of catching up to do. Generally, locally produced programs on current, relevant subject matter, like Hijo Ajako Kura touch the people and are hugely popular. The soaps, patterened after American and Indian formula plots, are less successful.
"There is nothing much to watch, we are repeating the same trend, which both the youngsters and adults have been watching on MTV and Indian channels for a long time," says former broadcaster, Suman Basnet.
There is one clear lesson from the ratings surveys: as long as there are interesting, professional and relevant programs in Nepali, most Nepalis will flick their remotes away from Indian or foreign channels. Says tv journalist Rabindra Pandey: "We compete with the Indian channels, so we have to be different, especially during primetime."