In 2012, after almost five years as chief of the video unit in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I reached the compulsory UN retirement age of 62 and had to leave. I loved my work, but after four decades working in film and television production on five continents for the organization, I finally had time to contemplate the extraordinary evolution of media technology in my lifetime — the digital revolution — and to explore how these changes were affecting UN strategic communications at UNTV, the video portal, in New York. What I found was disturbing.
Thanks to digital technology, both consumers and producers now have many options to produce and disseminate news and other information around the world. For example, when I started working for Monusco (as the UN peacekeeping mission in the Congo is called), my first task was to create a video magazine to win over Congolese hearts and minds and explain why thousands of UN peacekeepers were installed in their country.
The result, “MONUSCO Realities,” was viewed weekly by approximately 30 million Congolese on the country’s major TV networks and ran without problem for four years.
Our secret? With the support of an enlightened director in the Monusco Department of Public Information, Kevin S. Kennedy, we abandoned the patronizing traditional UN voice-of-God format for a lively mix of peacekeeping mission news and features about real people, shot around the country and told on-camera by our exclusively Congolese presenters and reporters from the popular UN-run Radio Okapi in the Congo.
After I left the UN, I decided to make some sense of the wide-ranging developments in my field by writing a dissertation for the Center for Languages and Literature at the University of Lund in Sweden, including case studies of UNTV and the Monusco video unit. In the process, I learned that both UNTV and the former UN Department of Public Information — renamed the Department of Global Communications — have been undergoing major transformations in recent years.
As a concerned former UN staff member, I would like to share some of my findings to the continuing discussion of UN strategic communications.
First, I was surprised to learn from former UNTV staff members that UNTV had ceased production of its flagship program, “21st Century.” A spinoff from BBC’s “21st Century,” the UNTV version featured a world-class presenter, Daljit Dhaliwal, who won many awards and enjoyed global distribution for a decade.
I also learned that UNTV has stopped production of the popular “UN Year in Review,” a highlight reel of international events significant in the work of the UN. All that is left of UNTV’s original programming is its most successful broadcast program in UN history — the “UN in Action” series — which presents vignettes of UN work around the world and has been the face of the organization globally for almost two decades.
The production arm of UNTV tasked with creating new episodes of “UN in Action” and material for new UN social media platforms is called UN Video. However, since UN Video reportedly has a limited budget for travel, program producers must often secure funding for travel and arrange distribution for individual programs as well as produce quality narrative content acceptable to the UN.
Speaking from personal experience, I believe this is a lot to ask of any producer; one can only hope that senior managers at the UN can find viable partnerships for funding just as their predecessors managed to do in the past. If they cannot, UN Video will have difficulty producing original quality programming.
By default, unfortunately, UNTV’s primary role now seems to be offering raw coverage of UN meetings distributed on UN Web TV. While live coverage of UN activities in the UN Secretariat, Security Council and many other UN forums certainly has historical and archival value, such coverage alone has a limited promotional impact. In simple communications terms, UN meetings are not interesting to the average viewer unless they are part of a story.
An example is the film on the UN’s 30th anniversary, which I made with a former UNTV chief, Steve Whitehouse. His job was to provide the UN content, while my job was to provide a narrative to make that content intriguing and emotionally engaging. The result, “To Be 30,” has been translated into more than 15 languages and won many prizes and is one of the most popular films in UN history.
Alison Smale, the head of the UN Department of Global Communications until her recent retirement, confirmed in an email interview that UN Video had ceased production of “21st Century” but would continue production for the popular “UN in Action” series in the UN’s six official languages.
Smale did not answer questions, however, about the number of programs produced, plans for distribution or effects of budgetary constraints on the series other than to say, “Like many organizations today, we face challenges in obtaining resources to carry out our mandates and we seek dynamic partnerships both within the UN family and externally to create opportunities to produce and share our content.”
As a result, key questions remain unanswered about the future of original programming by the UN, which has successfully promoted the organization’s brand since the UN was founded in 1945.
“UN in Action” is but one example of what is possible; as the creator of “UN in Action,” Georges Leclere, director of UN Radio and Visual Services from 1986 to 1993, told me that in a recent interview, thanks to a partnership with “CNN World Report,” the “UN in Action” series was shown regularly in as many as 135 countries. This global distribution facilitated procurement of funding for travel from UN agencies for subsequent UNTV chiefs like Steve Whitehouse and Chaim Litewski, who shot stories on locations around the world for “21st Century,” “UN in Action” and other original productions.
In response to other questions about the changes in programming, Smale said, “The role of the Department of Global Communications (DGC) is to share the United Nations story with the world, in multiple languages and formats so that people everywhere have a better understanding of the UN’s work and values.”
As technologies evolve, Smale added, “DGC is adapting too, updating our formats, platforms and distribution channels and partners so we can reach larger audiences and make a greater impact. Increasingly we are making virtual reality films, for example, and more mobile-friendly content.”
One can only hope that the Department of Global Communications can continue to carry on the distinguished tradition started by the UN Department of Public Information after the end of World War II. At that time, the founding nations believed that the UN was obligated to show the citizens of the world what the UN was doing in their name, and that task was given to the Department of Public Information. It responded with the production of quality content in different media in the official UN languages.
Today, seven decades later, the basic task remains fundamentally the same, but the digital revolution has made it possible to cheaply produce and distribute high-quality programming telling the UN story and promoting the UN message. It would be a shame if the UN were to miss this historic opportunity to connect and engage with the populations it serves.
This is an opinion essay.
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Ted Folke is a TV producer whose independent documentary feature, “East Timor: Betrayal and Resurrection,” won the 2004 UN Correspondents Association’s Ricardo Ortega Memorial Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism. Folke is currently an adjunct professor of strategies for business communications at the State University of New York-Fashion Institute of Technology in New York