Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Nation: TV free of politics and commerce

Independent broadcaster will be able to act on principle, but it will need public support to survive


The Nation

The much-criticised National Legislative Assembly left one noble legacy this past week. But the overwhelming vote that passed the Public Television Bill was just the first step of a journey into uncharted territory. Thailand's first "public service broadcasting station" will take time to build. To be more precise, it will take time to establish itself in a broadcast media industry that has long been subject to the whims of politics and commercialism.

Something bothers me about Thepchai Yong's obsession with a new public broadcasting station. Why should he care? He is already part of The Nation's multimedia empire. He is on TV all the time spouting his idiocy. He is the editor of Kom Chad Luek. He writes a column for The Nation. So when he becomes such an advocate for public broadcasting, I question his motives. It is like Bill O'Reilly from Fox News advocating for PBS. Bill O'Reilly would never advocate for PBS--unless there was something in it for him.

Will Thailand really be able to boast a TV station that doesn't rely on "political subsidy" or advertising revenues? The bill's passage doesn't provide the answer. Instead, it only amplifies the question, which had been limited to discussions among a few academics and advocates. The powers that be and the interim legislature have done a large part of their job, and the success or failure of this ambition will now depend largely on how strong our society's will is.

The funding for the new station comes from sin taxes. How is that not a political subsidy?

The heart of the law is something new. Thailand will have to experiment with so-called "audience councils" that will supervise and control programme quality.

I have a sinking feeling that the Yoon brothers will be the ones supervising and controlling this new station. Lord Buddha help us all. Maybe it will be their political reward for their support of the coup.

This system will replace the "market law", in which ratings determine everything, including a station's survival. As far as this new station is concerned, no minister or senior government official will be able to change, control or ban content via a phone call. No advertiser can pull strings on programming time and content. As for those content providers, there will be no more clashes of ethics and commercialism. Creativity can be unleashed for all good causes.

The Nation lives in a fantasy land if the editors really believe this nonsense. By the way, there is nothing stopping the Yoon brothers from producing the type of news that they want to produce. It makes absolutely no sense to become an advocate for public television that produces quality programming when they have all the power in the world to do it themselves on their own TV channel and in their newspapers.

The new station will be funded by special taxes intended to protect the freedom, objectivity and neutrality of content providers. It won't be controlled by station owners as we know them; it will be supervised by independent juries who will not be motivated by profit or conflicts of interest. And its staff will work in an enviable environment, where they don't need to worry every time there is a military reshuffle or change in the government.

Again, The Nation is living in a fantasy world. I guarantee if there was another coup, you will hear the same martial, royalist tunes being aired every time there is a coup. I'm willing to wager a lot of money that this new station won't produce anything of value, especially if the Yoon brothers are the ones who are controlling it. After all, they don't produce anything of value now.

The new law ends a bittersweet chapter in Thailand's quest for a truly independent TV station. Following the bloody political uprising in 1992, iTV was born in response to the clamour for a TV channel that wouldn't be used as a tool of the powers that be. Its considerable "independence" was hailed by the public but was unfortunately short-lived. Before he came to power in 2001, Thaksin Shinawatra took over the financially weak station, making it politically biased when it came to reporting about him, his party and then his government when he became prime minister. Under the Thaksin administration, ITV's management arbitrarily changed the concession terms of the station to lessen its financial burden and to increase the amount of entertainment content it could air.

According to Wikipedia:

Early years The original name of iTV's holding company was Siam Infotainment Company Limited. Its major shareholders were Siam Commercial Bank, the Crown Property Bureau (the investment company of King Bhumibol Adulyadej), and the Nation Multimedia Group.[1] Siam Infotainment won a 30 year concession to run a commercial television station, after offering only 120 billion baht in royalties. A rival company offered royalties of 625 billion baht. This irregularity was subject to a government investigation in 1996. The results of the investigation were never made public. It looks like the Yoon brothers are not incorruptible.

Established as an independent television station (all other TV stations in Thailand are government controlled), the company barred any one shareholder from having more than a 10% stake. Beholden to no major shareholders and with journalists feeling unencumbered, the station quickly distinguished itself for its in-depth public affairs programs and investigative journalism.

The East Asian financial crisis of 1997 led to heavy losses by the station. One factor for the losses was the high cost of concession fees (25.2 billion baht to be paid over 25 years) imposed by the Permanent Secretary of the Prime Minister's Office, which granted the iTV concession. In 2000, it lost 775 million THB (USD $18 million) — and the Democrat government worried that if it collapsed, it could adversely affect shareholders like Siam Commercial Bank and the Crown Property Bureau.[2] In order to attract outside capital, Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai lifted the 10% limit on ownership in the station. Shin Corporation, owned by future Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, was requested to purchase a large portion of the company's shares, which he did for USD $60 million. At the time, this was considered a high price for the ailing company.[3]

If Thepchai Yong was an ethical journalist, he would have disclosed that he was the one managing iTV and Nation Multimedia was a major shareholder in it before Thaksin took it over.

Also, if The Nation was a major shareholder of iTV, why didn't it prevent Thaksin from taking it over or buy out the CPB and Siam Commercial Bank's shares?

Part of the reason I think that the Yoon brothers and The Nation are anti-Thaksin is because like so many other former allies of Thaksin they didn't reap the economic and political benefits that were expected from having a relationship with him. Remember, Sondhi Limthongkul, the head of the Manager Group, was once a major Thaksin ally. Then the Krung Thai Bank Scandal happened. After, Thaksin and Sondhi were no longer BFF. Something similar seems to have happened between Thaksin and the Yoon brothers. Thaksin refused to sing to their tune, so they turned on him.

If I was Thaksin and just overpaid for a TV station that was being financially run into the ground by Thepchai Yong, I would probably fire him also, not for political reasons, but because Thepchai is an idiot.

Let us hope the Yoon brothers don't get their clutches on TiTV. They have already done enough damage to Thai journalism as it is.


sooksiam said...

Fonzi, the country seriously needs “a real and trustworthy public service broadcasting station”. It is not that this topic has just been brought up after the coup. The idea of having a public service TV channel was discussed for quite a while, during the previous government. As the Nation said, it will take quite some time to establish the new channel that has a good standard. It will take time, or else you just want to watch the same old crap TV channels, where there is nothing much to give to the public, aside from the usual brainless entertainment.

My love, your reaction to Thepchai Yong's wanting to have a new public broadcasting station is bothering me too. I thought you wanted the country to have free media that people can trust. It is not only Yong, who yearns for a public TV station, many people who care for a real good standard TV channel, are in need of something new. Television is an important mainstream media that the majority of Thais spend a great deal of time with. Do you really think that many people prefer reading newspapers, like Kom Chad Luek or the Nation, to watching the news on telly?

You said that the Yoon brothers have their own TV channel. What do you mean by that? Is it the Nation channel that you are trying to say? If that is the case, do you really think that many people, especially the poor, are fortunate enough to watch it on the satellite?

I do not know where the funding for the new station will come from; but surely people can find a way. It could come from a TV license that people have to pay for so as to maintain its quality without depending on “political subsidy" or advertising revenue”. Even so, this is going to be hard work; knowing how naughty Thai people are, many are going to avoid paying it altogether. If the funding comes from taxes, what about the people who do not own TV. It is still better than trying to do nothing at all.

Fonzi, I know that you have an incurable and discriminatory phobia against the Nation group; still I would like to ask if you have ever watched a TV programme that the Yoon brothers and his gang produced during the dawn of the ITV channel, the old name of the TITV. They were the people who, if not the first, introduced a kind of face-to-face debate programme on Thai television. In comparison to other Thai TV channels at that time, ITV was in a much better situation than those soap opera TV stations. Since the departure of these two brothers, whatever the true reason was, the channel has gone downhill and turned into typically trash Thai TV. Senselessly, you are talking like the two brothers committed the crime of turning this channel into a piece of manure. They were not the people who screwed up the ITV. Why don’t you dig up the old archives of ITV during the Yoon and Yong era, and compare them to the many news programmes that were created during Thaksin’s takeover? Your beloved square-faced retro-Prime Minister simply changed the channel into a money making station which was full of dramas and game shows.

Seriously speaking, I urge you to find out what kind of news programmes they did at the advent of the ITV instead of throwing the same old uncalled-for deconstruction; it is just like a smear, and also it stinks.

Fonzi said...


We can agree to disagree.

The Yoon brothers have proven to me that they can't be trusted.

They don't believe in democracy or the rule of law.

They don't believe in a free press.

They have free reign to do what they want in The Nation, Kom Chad Luek, Bangkok Business(Krungthep Turakit), on military TV where they are frequently seen, and on The Nation channel.

Who cares what happened on iTV years ago when what they are doing now is acting as a propaganda arm of the Thai military?

I appreciate your remarks, but their actions speak for themselves.

If the new public broadcasting channel turns into a Thai version of BBC or PBS, then good, but I think it will be a cold day in hell before that happens.