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Television in Taiwan: the Captive Audience
The Taiwanese media suffer from an ambiguous image: while one cannot fail to be impressed by the freedom of their tone and the range of the subjects they tackle, yet they are equally known to be highly politicised, biased and often actually controlled by those in power. How can we speak of free presidential elections when all three national television channels are affiliated with the Kuomintang (KMT)? The question baffled many observers last March, for example, during the presidential campaign (1). The stakes are considerable: the control of the media is regularly exposed as evidence of how far democracy and the KMTs goodwill still have to go. Yet that control does not only represent the state of the countrys political strengths or openness, it also reflects a market and the factors related to it. Political will and economic calculation are interacting and contributing to renew the Taiwanese media. Thus it is with broadcast television, for which the politicians have laid down the rules of the market from start to finish, and with cable television, where its the market that enforces and gradually fixes the rules.
Today television is taking the lions share of media attention: 98% of Taiwanese people watch it, whereas fewer than 50% read the newspapers and only about 40% listen to the radio (2). Above all, television dominates when it comes to news (55% of viewers switch on TV mainly to follow the news bulletins), a politically sensitive area but at the heart of which is a new tyranny that is gaining ascendancy: the ratings (3). The televisual landscape of the island has become complex and fluid, and its drawing in new actors. It corresponds to the evolution of a society that is becoming more self-reliant and more critical.
Channels for the airwaves
Broadcast television is the most widespread system on the island; every set equipped with an aerial can receive the channels across the whole territory without the viewer having to pay any fee. The 1978 Law on Television and Radio (guangbo dianshi fa) places broadcasting under the authority of the Government Information Office (GIO) of the Executive Yuan (the government) as well as that of the Ministry of Transportation and Communications (MTC), and of the Ministry of National Defense. The first exerts strict control over the channels shareholders and management, as well as over programming, of which it is notified in advance, and for which it sets quotas according to subject matter. Article 21 of this law specifically forbids any broadcast that might harm the national interest and national dignity, or which might run counter to the national policy of the struggle against communism.
Three channels (bendi santai) monopolise the airwaves, which had long been kept free for the military. The first channel, the Taiwan Television Enterprise Ltd. (Taiwan dianshi, TTV), was established in 1962. Its shareholders included six banks controlled by the provincial government (49%) as well as some enterprises of the KMTs business group. The second, the China Television Co. (Zhongguo dianshi, CTV), was founded in 1968 by a consortium of firms belonging to the KMT (among them the Central Daily News, [Zhongyang ribao]) and has broadcast in colour since 1969. Two years later was born the third, the Chinese Television System (Zhonghua dianshi, CTS), controlled by the Defense and Education ministries (36%) and Public Cultural Institutions (39%). All three channels are commercial, in that they are financed by advertising breaks, but the executives are men of the KMT, such as the president of TTV, Chien Ming-ching, former president of the Provincial Assembly and member of the central committee of the KMT, who died in May 1997. Enjoying strong infrastructures and big budgets, they in effect put out the government line. Having for a long time been without competitors, they are still today holding onto a captive audience of 48% of viewers, who particularly watch the news bulletins (as distinct from cable viewers, see below) (4). Even so, they seem like a dated and doubted propaganda tool. Indeed, at the time of a poll carried out in 1995, 50% of those questioned thought that the political news handled by the three channels was twisted, as against 25% a few years earlier (5).
The idea of setting up a new broadcast channel was formed as a reply by the KMT to its critics and as a direct concession to the members of the political opposition. The new channel was the target of three competing bids. One came from the TVBS television channel, the second from representatives of the Coca-Cola group, and the third from a group affiliated to the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), Taiwans main opposition party. The evaluation panel was composed of eleven members: two represented supervisory bodies (the IB and the MTC) but others came from the universities and one was a member of the DPP; the panel chose the bid from the opposition party. Registered in Kaohsiung and calling itself the Peoples Broadcasting Corporation (Minjian quanmin dianshi, PBC), this channel started transmitting from Taipei in June 1997. Its late arrival, after the legalisation of the cable channels, has served to lessen its impact, and it has scarcely held the attention of the media. Broadcast television, controlled for too long by the government, is not in fact the true battleground for an independent television service. Neither has the privatisation of the three channels, an issue placed on the agenda by the GIO in 1997, attracted much publicity. The channels are already partially owned by private companies, and one may wonder if their quotation on the Stock Exchange, to be closed on January 1st 1998, will have any effect other than to change their names. It does mark, however, a second sign of the governments weakening grip on television. The recent controversy over the Public Television channel (Gonggong dianshi, PTV) is a further illustration.
The idea of a public non-commercial channel, was raised as early as 1980 by the prime minister at the time, initially applied for in 1984. Aimed at fulfilling an educational and cultural mission, it has since functioned as a programming slot rented out to the other three channels. In 1991, the Legislative Yuan voted to grant PTV its own broadcasting network, and a preparatory commission was appointed to give it all the attributes of a full channel and a production company. The project is considerable: in the space of five years it has swallowed up US$170 million, and 200 employees have been recruited. But new legislation would now be needed to allow transmissions to begin. The announcement in April 1997 that the project had been cancelled, by order of the KMTs political co-ordination committee, reflects the partys reluctance to pursue its investments in a medium that has become too expensive and too competitive. The official motive for backing off was that the Legislative Yuan would be unlikely to agree to the channels annual budget, projected for 1998 at around US$17 billion and entirely financed by the state. The prospect of a fourth channel actually controlled by the party in powera legitimate question in view of the history of broadcast television in Taiwanhas in effect provoked the opposition of a certain number of legislators. Nevertheless, the KMTs brusque change of mind on this matter brought about a consensus among politicians of the DPP and the New Party (NP), a consensus that has in the end saved the channel. The bill, more than 30 clauses long, was debated by the Legislative Yuan at the end of the parliamentary session and passed on May 31st 1997. The legislation should allow PTV to start transmissions on January 1st 1998.
Even so, the controversy has been significant in several respects: on the one hand it demonstrates that the KMT lacks the will to continue imposing a public television policy, in part because of the new parliamentary resistance that it has to take into account; on the other hand it underlines the confusion reigning among politicians and the interests dividing those within a single party. Many of them are involved in the cable television market, whose shadow hovers above the questions relating to broadcasting. In the end, if the public channel is killed off at birth, it will be cable that will be responsible. By its growing size the cable market is relegating the development of broadcast television into a position of secondary importance, possibly even into the past.
The cable war
The cable networks appeared on the island from the end of the 1960s onwards, in order to reach the regions badly served by the transmitters. It was a question of communal public infrastructure (gongtong tianxian), which was intended to insure good reception for the broadcast channels. Over the next decade, the networks were also used on a private basis to put out pirate programmes. Although people call this system the fourth channel (di si tai) by analogy with the three official broadcast channels of the time, it did not add up to establishing a television production channel: quite simply, videocassettes were recorded and then put out by cable. The programmes (foreign films, comedies and shows, pornography) were produced cheaply and in total disregard for intellectual property rights. Thus fortunes were made in a few years. The cables began to invade the streets by being grafted onto the overhead installations for street lighting, to give the typically Taiwanese townscape that anyone trying to take a photo cannot fail to notice. At the end of the 1980s, the political opposition set up a multitude of small local channels, taking advantage of this medium over which the government had at that time no control, to open up discussions about the political and social situation of the country (6).
More than 20 years of deregulated practices have made cable television into an cats cradle (7) that has proved difficult, but indispensable, to unravel. Cable enjoys the highest penetration rate in Asiaaround 70% of homes (8). Moreover, the growth of the Taiwanese market and the heightened importance of the islands economy in the commercial exchanges of the Pacific region render intolerable the disregard for intellectual property rights, especially in American eyes. The May 1993 detailed regulations of application of the Law on Radio and Television (guangbo dianshi fa shixing xizi) are actually nicknamed the cable law even though they apply to every kind of television. They set a minimum capital of US$10 million to set up a television company; they ban foreigners and those already involved in other media from owning shares; they regulate the videocassette industry; they require that 20% of programmes should be locally produced; and they control the programming overall (for example not less than 15% and not more than 20% of air time should be devoted to news and government announcements). The companies registered with the GIO that do not fulfil these conditions have nine years grace to continue their activities on a provisional basis and to apply for an official permit. The island is divided into 51 districts, each one including a minimum of five cable providers who know that the first to win an official permit has the monopoly of the market from then until other companies gain official sanction. This law has had several important consequences: on the one hand the video parlours (MTV) have steadily disappeared because few establishments are prepared to pay the fees for broadcasting videocassettes. On the other hand the number of cable providers has plummeted, from 680 operators on the eve of the law to a scant hundred or so today. The market has become concentrated, both vertically with television channels being set up or purchased by several cable operators, and horizontally with the establishment of networks of operators owned by a single parent company (Multiple System Operator). A ferocious price war (the Taiwanese viewer can have access to a hundred or so channels for less than US$20 a month) has hit those small companies that are still independent, whereas three big groups have emerged: Hohsin (Hexin), Rebar (Liba) and Pohsin (Boxin).
Hohsin (Chinatrust Group) is controlled by Jeffrey Koo, one of the islands tycoons whose conglomerate extends to banking, heavy industry and property. In particular he holds exclusive rights to rebroadcast the American networks CNN and Discovery, and he controls a network of cable operators in MSO.
The Ribar group, headed by Wang You-chen, is the oldest established on the market (since 1989), and it has used the communal networks, as well as those of the minzhu tai, to build up its own system and, today, to control 25 cable access providers in MSO. It has set up its own channels, U1, U2 and U3, each specialising in one area (news, sport, films). The head of Rebar Television, Wang Ling-lin, the son of Wang You-chen, is one of the most active and influential players on the telecommunications market.
The third group, Boxin, headed by Chu Tsong-ke, is controlled by the KMTs business group and is the most recent arrival on the cable scene. Though it does control a certain number of cable operators, its production and programme-making base is limited, its news channel has gone off the air, it has sold off its rights to rebroadcast the Disney Channel and it has held on to only one Japanese channel (9). Moreover, the sale of certain channels coupled with cable access providers, a novel practice in Asia, has allowed certain groups to concentrate on the role of mediating agent, without investing in distribution. This is the case with ERA (Niandai zongdaili), which takes advantage of its two exclusive contracts with the TVBS and HBO channels (cancelled in February 1997) to sell a package of several channels at the best price.
The political loyalties of cable companies is less easy to define and in general more discreet. The minzhu tai, for example, have been hard hit by the 1993 law, whereas one might have expected them, on the contrary, to flourish within the new legal framework. Firstly, these are small structures that have difficulty in meeting the new conditions, especially the financial ones, imposed by the law. Secondly, they used to bring together partners, all of them working behind the scenes, who had an interest in supporting one another. The businesses benefited from the protection and support networks of opposition politicians while they, in their turn, had access to a platform to publicise their cause. The legalisation of the market limited the risks and allowed operators to free themselves from their old allies (10). Lastly, most political activism used to be expressed through the medium of pirate radio stations, which were simpler to manage, more discreet and less expensive. The thirty or so television channels that have survived are political platforms for the DPP, but these channels are local and mirror the factionalism and the divergence of interests of the countrys main opposition party. Whats more, the independent access providers are often connected with local leaders, on whom they depend in one way or another (problems with waste disposal relating to cables, for instance) and whom they can support in regional programmes that they produce themselves (11). It is not so much a question of politicians controlling television as of expressing a traditional form of social and economic relationships, a form which, by contrast with broadcast television, is encouraged by the very local nature of cable. This situation makes it difficult to draw up a political map of cable on the island.
All three of the big cable television groups are connected to the KMT but, unlike the three broadcast channels, they do not act directly as instruments of propaganda. Jeffrey Koos uncle, Koo Chen-fu, is the president of the Foundation for Exchanges Across the Taiwan Strait, the semi-official body which handles negotiations with mainland China, and hes a member of the central executive committee of the KMT. The same goes for Wang You-chen, the father of Wang Ling-lin. Boxin alone made itself the spokesman for the KMT, through the medium of the news channel that it set up. This political label seems to have played a certain part in the closing down of the channel, which several analysts interpret as a sign of the Taiwanese publics growing disaffection with the pro-government media. Some channels have gambled on the fixed and far too biased character of the traditional news broadcasts to attract the public to new formulas. TVBS (Wuxian weixin dianshi) for example piles on the live reports, the studio discussions in which various political figures argue their different opinions with fast-talking presenters. It has set up a special news channel and opens its arms to international reports. Others have followed in its wake, though so far without presenting a serious threat in terms of ratings (12). None of them owes allegiance to any political party. Thus the TNN channel (Zhenxian xinwenwang) employs the New Party legislator Chou Chuan, but denies any affiliation to the party. All of them make of their impartiality the key to their success (13).
The truth is that cable television responds in general to other expectations: only 13% of its viewers watch its news programmes; most of them prefer the stations for their variety shows (zongyi tiemu) and their films (30% in each case) (14). Cable presents less an alternative political voice than a window on the overseas world and a new kind of leisure. The emergence of satellite television will only reinforce that tendency.
Taiwan: a centre for television in the region?
The GIO is planning to open up the media market so as to make it one of the six investment areas provided for in the Asia-Pacific Regional Operations Plan, the islands great economic project for the turn of the century. Television has its part, including the flotation on the stock exchange of the three broadcast channels. The cable market is also to be opened up to foreign investors, who in practice have managed secretly to take control of more than 20% of some operators capital. This plan could give public access to 49% of the shares, but its adoption by the Legislative Yuan is not guaranteed, because many of its members seek to protect small business people who would then come under threat. The present parcelling up of the island seems also to be hardly rational. Too many constituencies and too many enterprises per zone prevent economies of scale from being achieved and are likely to provoke a price war. The 1993 bill, as conceived by the GIO, actually recommended one single cable access provider per constituency, but during the debate the legislators introduced amendments to preserve the wide range of businesses and to ensure the survival of those they were connected with (15). Nevertheless, its now a question of reducing their number. Already, under the pressure of competition, a downward tendency is well advanced: in 1997 out of 51 constituencies only three have five operators whereas the average number is 2.3 businesses per zone. Multimedia activities should soon be allowed as well, as the GIO estimates that the various players on the market are sufficiently numerous to prevent the risk of any monopoly being establisheda real risk when there were only the three channels.
Many of these reforms will not actually be possible until after the satellite television law has been passed, a law that is conceived as a model of regulation for the desired opening up of the island. Foreign investment will be without limit, according to the wording proposed by the GIO. But this plan still seems far from being ready to win the backing of the Parliament.
As of now, foreign channels being rebroadcast in Taiwan are not subject to the 1978 law nor to its 1993 amendments, particularly in the matter of the quotas for advertising and programming. Their growing number renders this law obsolete and unfair to the local channels, and makes the need for compliance with international conventions all the more urgent. Direct reception by satellite is the last but potentially the most influential of the changes that are likely to shake up the television market on the island. Private dish aerials, which have been permitted in Taiwan since 1988, can receive all the Asian satellite services, among them in particular Star TV (Weishi zhongwen tai) and Zhongtian (Chinese Television Network) from Hong Kong, Zhongyang dianshi tai (Central Television Channel) from China and NHK from Japan. The satellite broadcaster thus bypasses all the operators in the market, who in the long run will have no other choice than to put up its own satellite to gain access to other markets (16). In Taiwans densely urban milieu, private dish aerials remain difficult to install, thus are few and far between. As for collective aerials, these remain the privilege of a few luxury apartment blocks. This state of affairs guarantees several more good years to the other means of transmission. The recent battle between the HBO channel (sub-titled in Chinese) and its exclusive agent in Taiwan, ERA (Niandai zongdaili), which broke out in spring 1997 following the American channels proposal to increase subscription rates, has pushed ERA into selling its programmes directly to the cable operators. Nevertheless, the vertical formation of this market sector leaves almost no way out for the channels, whose local agents control part of the cable distribution network. In this particular case it is striking to note that four months had to go by before an agreement between HBO and ERA could be reached, despite the presence in Taipei of 14 separate access providers who share the market out between them. The basic problem is that subscription rates are too low, among the lowest in Asia (17).
The race started by the GIO, to modernise and to internationalise the islands television market, has not yet been won: eventually its likely to come up against the reluctance of the practitioners, public and private, who have carved up the market to their needs. The GIO, which is anxious to act in agreement with them, organises work conferences in advance of each bill, to which it invites the professional associations and some academics. Legislators do not show up, probably because they can now, as weve seen, effectively revise the bills clauses later on. The debates are dull and seem to favour the intellectual authorities over the commercial companies. In spite of its efforts, the GIO seems out of step with the business community and with its representatives in Parliament, who remain cramped within a logic inherited from the glorious period of the fourth channel. Their thinking arises from the rigidity of the broadcast system and from the dominance of pro-government channels which are restrictive and superfluous. This logic conveys several images: an ill-organised market in which only the craftiest operator, one who can best get around the law, can stay afloat; a multitude of small traders who are used to working on their own; an investment offering a rapid returnand a return that creates few fixed assets in the long term. Today these snapshots amount to so many shackles that the market can barely shake off, despite the growing efforts of the state administration. Neither does the presence of a certain number of great captains of industry who are very close to government help towards evolution, but it does nevertheless present the best chance of liberalising the media: the new generation is politically more free and economically more open to outside markets, even though it has immediate interests to defend. By doing that, the new generation sets the tone for the new democracy: open and free, and discreet over its interests.
1. Asian Wall Street Journal, March 21st 1996.
2. Report on Peoples Lifestyle and Ethics Survey, Taiwan Area, Republic of China, Directorate-General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, Executive Yuan, Republic of China, Taipei, 1996, pp. 24, 34, 46.
3. Ibid., p. 40.
4. Ibid. p. 35.
5. Asian Wall Street Journal, March 21st 1996.
6. Cai Nianzhong, Youxian dianshi (Cable Television), in Zhonghua minguo xinwen nianjian 85 nianban (Yearbook for the Press of the Republic of China, 1996 edition), Taipei, Zhongguo xinwen xuehui, 1996, pp. 135-139.
7. According to the slogan used in the article Cable Cats Cradle, Free China Review, February 1996, pp. 4 and following.