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Second Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong

The cutting edge of media and public service broadcast

Lawrence Wong - CNA
Lawrence Wong, Second Minister for Communications and Information (image - Channel NewsAsia)

By Howard Lee

When was the last time you ever watched a public service broadcast programme? For that matter, does the term even mean anything to you?

In any case, if you have no inkling what this is about, go find out, because we are about to have a whole lot of money – your money – put into it.

On Tuesday, 10 March, Second Minister for Communications and Information Lawrence Wong announced in Parliament that the government will invest some S$250 million in public service broadcast (PSB) programmes every year for the next five years.

This would be a significant increase from the S$195 million spent every year for the past three years.

As quoted by media:

“Mr Wong said support for the development of online platforms for PSB programmes will also be enhanced to widen the reach.

Commenting on the value of PSB programmes, Mr Wong said that they "reflect and shape" culture and identity, and connect people within Singapore's diverse population. However, he pointed out that the media environment and viewing habits have also changed as Singaporeans access programmes from across the globe on different platforms.

He said: "Commercially, it is not possible for MediaCorp or any production house in Singapore to invest so heavily in producing local programmes simply because our TV market is much smaller compared to other markets.

"In fact, it would be more cost-effective for MediaCorp to purchase and broadcast foreign programmes on free-to-air TV, than to spend on local productions."”

Before we go into Mr Wong’s statements and how they are problematic on three fronts, it is perhaps timely to remind ourselves on what used to fund PSB programmes. In 2011, the government did away with the TV and radio license fees, which “had been justified in the past as necessary to fund public broadcasting programmes made by free-to-air broadcaster Mediacorp as well as other TV programmes supported by the Media Development Authority.”

The TV and radio license fees was said to have amounted to $120 million per year. With an increase of S$55 million to PSB funding, perhaps we are halfway restoring the “loss” that these major broadcasters suffered?

Day of Rage - CNA
(Image - Channel NewsAsia)

The right programmes to fund?

But of greater concern is Mr Wong’s verdict on the value of PSB programmes, citing Channel NewsAsia's “Days of Rage” as an example. This particular programme has been noted by independent observers to be inconsistent and lacking in certain facts and personal accounts of the Hock Lee bus riots which it had described.

In fact, there were accounts that a few of those who were interviewed by the makers of the programme had key aspects of their views left out of the final edit.

In view of this, we should really be asking what Mr Wong meant when he said that PSB programmes “reflect and shape culture and identity, and connect people within Singapore's diverse population”. In terms of representing Singaporeans, the very programme he cited as the crown jewel seems to have fallen way short, to the extent that the veracity of the programme was questioned by those involved in the production.

Just as critically, we need to question more the processes and standards that go into evaluating the production of such PSB broadcasts. What is the quality of such programmes? Who decides on this “quality”? For that matter, if we were to take “Days of Rage” as a benchmark, who exactly do PSB programmes represent and what values do they espouse? How are they still relevant to us?

The right ones to fund?

But even more surprising was Mr Wong’s outline, without a breakdown, of what exactly the increase in PSB funds would do. If “support for the development of online platforms for PSB programmes will also be enhanced to widen the reach”, the relevant question to ask would be whether this development constitutes the $55 million increase, part of the full S$250 million, or if we are looking at a separate pool of development funds.

Lawrence Wong public service broadcast SingapoliticsIndeed, looking at the Twitter feed by Singapolitics, one might be inclined to believe that the focus of the booster in funds for PSB programmes is to enhance the reach by PSB programme developers, the main one presumably being Mediacorp.

The declining viewership for PSB programmes, not to mention Mediacorp’s TV channels, is not a new development. Back when the TV and radio licensed was scrapped, Alfred Siew from Techgoondu noted this remark from Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam, when he announced the cancelation of the fees, quite ironically, for Budget 2011:

“He told Parliament that the licence fees were losing their relevance. Many users now watch TV and listen to radio on the Internet, bypassing the traditional channels, he also pointed out.”

Are we witnessing the Ministry for Communications and Information now trying to rescue a doomed industry? If so, for what purpose?

In fact, if the Finance Minister had made observations about the industry’s faltering traditional reach in 2011, what then has broadcasters done in the past four years to stay ahead of the online curve? Why is the government using public funds to help a media player “enhance its reach” online? Is the government now in the habit of helping out broadcasters with their marketing budget, regardless of the “quality” of public service broadcast programmes?

The right way to fund?

The other aspect on why such funding should be questioned has to do with how the funds would be used. "MediaCorp outsources about 40 per cent of its PSB productions to independent production houses,” claimed Mr Wong. “So with an increased production budget and greater contractual certainty, the production houses are able to put in place longer-term plans to invest in and produce better quality programmes."

Presumably, we would have 60% of PSB funds going to Mediacorp. However, Mr Wong also said that “commercially it is not possible for MediaCorp or any production house in Singapore to invest so heavily in producing local programmes simply because our TV market is much smaller compared to other markets.”

If nobody else saw the disparity in this statement, then we all need to watch Committee of Supply debates a lot more closely. A company that does not see a project as commercial viability, and yet still receives the lion’s share of state funding, should not be in the game at all.

In fact, what is stopping the government from cutting off all state funding to the corporate broadcasters, and instead repurpose the funds as grants to smaller production houses, who would have a much stronger connection with the ground, greater agility and lower overheads? Would they not be in a better position to produce such PSB programmes?

And if such PSB programmes are of such importance to Singaporeans, what would stop the corporate broadcasters from buying from these producers? Does this not assist the industry better? And even if they don’t, with the vast possibilities and low entrance cost of the Internet, what is to stop these production houses from finding their audiences online, if only the government is willing to give them a leg up?

To end, it is perhaps important to remember what the Committee of Supply is about. COS is a time where Members of Parliaments submit their “cuts” – in a very literal sense, their questions on the Budget and proposals to trim the fat off it.

From that perspective, the PSB programme funding scheme looks to be a S$250 million, overfed sacred cow that quite possibly needs to be slaughtered.