By Masked Crusader
I did not watch the controversial Mediacorp Countdown on Channel 5. I haven’t watched Mediacorp channels in quite awhile. I am so glad that Ivan Heng spoke up about the “cheena”-ness of the show, it was about time this issue came out in the open. Hopefully, it will lead to an honest discussion about the role of public broadcasting and a review of the current situation.
Mediacorp will deny this for eternity but it is a cheena entity to the core. It is a well known reality that resources are not allocated equitably between Mediacorp’s language-based channels. Most minorities—both within and outside Mediacorp—have long whispered about how they are marginalized due to the unequal treatment given to the channels dedicated to the 4 official languages in Singapore. If they have not raised a big fuss it is because this has been the status quo since the start of broadcasting in Singapore and because they do not want to risk creating racial tension. They have learned to live with it.
Mediacorp’s subsidiary, Raintree Pictures, which doesn’t seem to have produced anything for the past 2 years, made almost exclusively Chinese films—generally low-brow comedies or horror—despite the following nonsensical statement in their corporate profile:
Singapore is an English-speaking cosmopolitan society. Unlike other Asian countries, it is in a unique position to produce movies with a sensibility that is truly universal for the viewer who speaks any language.
Raintree, which bled money, collaborated mainly with established companies or personalities from Hong Kong or China, who generally made their worst films using Raintree money.
It is no secret that Mediacorp’s television programming departments are dominated by its marketing communications department, which controls the types of content to be made or purchased for broadcast. There isn’t a champion of good content within the production arms. If there was, she would have long gone mad from being dictated to by the powerbroker—the infamous MarComm Department, whose only yardstick of success is revenue. As a result, Mediacorp 8, despite its low-quality programming, is used as a model for the other channels as it is the channel that generates any semblance of revenue. The other channels live in the shadow of Channel 8 and have come to accept their position on the totem pole, as have production companies and artists who work with Suria or Vasantham.
Like SMRT and other government-linked monopolies, Mediacorp, owned entirely by Temasek Holdings, depends on government funds for its loss-making functions. The Public Service Broadcasting Funding scheme administered by the Media Development Authority provides funding to Mediacorp for production of local content. According to MDA, over 2000 hours of local content is funded through the PSB scheme. In 2013, Starhub, was also considered qualified for the PSB despite it being a subscription-based service, not a free-to-air broadcaster. The rationale for this is not clear.
Although Mediacorp’s mandate is to provide quality local content, since it is a corporate entity, perhaps some lame argument can be made for its pursuit of profits over fulfilling its public obligations. What is harder to accept, however, is that even MDA—whose mandate is to promote the media sector—is not equitable when funding local content.
According to rather arbitrary budget limits indicated in its 2013 PSB Contestable Funds Scheme, a one-hour drama in Chinese may be budgeted at $170k-$200k/hr while a similar drama if produced in Malay will be given funding of only $60k-$70k/hr—about 60% less. If the program is in Tamil, the allowable production budget is even lower!
The mindset that pervades both Mediacorp and MDA seems to be that, as local Chinese programs are more profitable, they deserve greater funding. It doesn’t matter if the Chinese program being proposed is a contemporary family drama that costs less to produce than say an ambitious Malay period drama. Funding decisions appear to be made by automatons using a cookie cutter. Of course, MDA will point out that the funding decisions are made by an expert panel of industry professionals. Sure. So they need to examine why an expert independent panel would adopt a cookie cutter approach and not see through the inequity.
The camera and equipment used by a Producer making a Malay or Tamil program costs the same as the one used by the Producer making a Chinese program. Electricity costs the same. Ditto with location costs. The same GST is levied on purchases. A technician or make-up artist would charge the same rates as it matters not to them what language the production is in. Why should an actor or writer accept less because she works in a Malay-language program?
The end result is that a Malay or Tamil program needs to be made with cheaper ingredients if the companies making them are to survive. The defeatist attitude by MDA means that productions in Tamil and Malay, from the outset, have a lesser chance of succeeding artistically and commercially than a Chinese-language production. It has been a running joke for years that, if you are producing Tamil or Malay programmes for Mediacorp, you’re doing national service!
Since public television broadcasting started to be corporatized, its history of programming has been characterized by cheap productions and sleazy attempts to monetize them through infomercial-like productions, tie-ins, in-your-face sponsorships, roadshows, SMS voting, etc. The downward slide become more marked following the entry of Singapore Cable Vision (now Starhub) into the market in 2002. In recent years, even their acquired fare, such as Dinocroc vs Supergator, wreaks of sleaze.
It’s hard to know if it is naivety or cynicism—or both—but it is a wonder that Mediacorp can consistently put inferior products on the shelf and hope marketing genius will cause consumers to be fooled into buying them again and again. Any normal company would not have lasted a year. Mediacorp buffeted by taxpayer funding keeps going on and on without changing tack.
The one immutable truth over the years has been that everything at Mediacorp is dictated by profit. This was not the case before corporatization when what mattered was programming in service of the public. This philosophy is at the root of Mediacorp’s decision to telecast the Countdown show on Channel 5 to achieve the widest possible reach without consideration of the sensitivities of the minorities in Singapore. It knew the backlash would have been far worse if the program had been on Channel 8 and that fewer non-Chinese would have tuned in.
What is galling is Mediacorp’s response to the uproar. It says the show was
… conceived as a multi-lingual, multi-cultural show to reflect Singapore’s multi-cultural heritage (and) a fair mix of English and Mandarin content was featured in the dual channel telecast … to keep different audiences captivated.
No apology. No acknowledgment of the complaints. The response smacks of high-handedness and makes it seem Mediacorp is not in tune with the feelings of its viewers and does not understand why people are upset.
This article was first published in Masked Crusader ‘s blog.