Yawning Bread. 13 October 2009

Third-rate television for a Third-world country




All four contributors to Straits Times' YouthInk thought so: local TV programming sucks. The result: "Who really watches local TV programmes any more?" wrote Keith Neubronner, 20. [1]

Frankly, their sentiments aren't new. Local free-to-air television, over which state-owned Mediacorp has a monopoly, has been in decline for years, steadily losing viewership. The quality of their locally-made shows has become the object of ridicule, while censorship rules cramp their import options. They are stuck in the Father Knows Best [2] age when the world has moved on.

Advertisers have deserted Mediacorp. Just count how many ads in a commercial break are by third-party advertisers compared to ads related to Mediacorp or its upcoming programs. Typically, in a run of six ads in a commercial break, you'd find only one from a third-party advertiser.

"Originality and creativity are problematic areas when it comes to local TV," said Alex Liam, 20.

Concurring, Jonathan Liautrakul, 19, said: "[L]ocal TV is a letdown since it consists mostly of saccharine local dramas like The Little Nyonya and sitcoms like Police and Thief - the latter boasting a glaring lack of proper spoken English."

They are producing crappy shows at a time when the competition from the internet is growing. "With a plethora of streaming websites such as YouTube, Youku and Tudou and ever-increasing broadband speeds," noted Chew Zhi Wen, 22, "local TV is fast becoming a thing of the past.

"There is no need to catch local TV programmes any more -- the latest episodes of foreign drama serials like Lost and Desperate Housewives or reality TV shows like Survivor and America's Next Top Model can be streamed commercial-free instead."

And better yet, they are not mutilated by censorship.

* * * * *

The crisis in local television is a harbinger of the crisis that Singapore as a whole will soon face. In a nutshell, it's an inability to compete in a world of ideas. Censorship and authoritarian politics are the root causes. While occasionally a direct connection can be made, the truly damaging effects are indirect. That is to say, even if censorship is lifted tomorrow, it will still take a long time to overcome the effects.

Direct effects

Direct censorship I have documented a number of times on Yawning Bread. My interest being gay equality, the instances I document here naturally relate to that. But I'm sure it doesn't take a genius to note the shocking paucity of political discussion or counter-cultural content over our airwaves. The rare documentary that attempts to cover a social issue invariably bows to an editorial line that reinforces orthodoxy.

Mediacorp has basically given up trying to be a news broadcaster. ChannelNews Asia has seen no new development of any significance for years. That should hardly be a surprise. News necessarily involves politics and social issues, yet our authoritarian masters insist on keeping media organisations on a short leash. 

If there's no room to do better in news, then focus on entertainment -- that seems to be the strategic decision made at Mediacorp. Yet, entertainment too is not free from censorship and the stifling demands of social and cultural conformity. Every now and then, we hear of cancellations of certain episodes of imported drama series. As for locally-produced programs, the YouthInk writers said it all.

Neubronner said, perhaps in hope: "The way local TV channels can revive their flagging fortunes is to be more adventurous and open to programme concepts that are not 'safe'. After all, younger viewers enjoy being challenged intellectually when it comes to plot. Plots of current local dramas are too predictable or unbelievable."

I don't think it's worth hanging on to hope. There's cable television, which although not free from censorship, is not entirely strangled by it, and as Chew Zhi Wen said, there's the internet.

Indirect effects

It is the indirect effects of censorship and authoritarianism that is most debilitating. Two generations have been mentally programmed in an irreversible way just by living in our political climate. It's a climate of permissions [3]; Singaporeans have imbibed the lesson that in so many ways, we cannot do this or that without first getting permission. This is especially when we want to do something novel or controversial, and it is precisely then that we don't get permission. So we learn not to want to do novel and controversial things.

And what happens next? We learn not to think novel and controversial thoughts, because if we think these thoughts, we might desire to act on them, and then we come up against a brick wall and end up frustrated. So don't even think. That's how external control over behaviour eventually results in an internal evacuation of the mind.

A playwright once told me about the time he was conducting a writing class. He met plenty of eager young Singaporeans wanting to become writers. He asked them what they wanted to write about, but this question drew a blank. "They all fantasise about being successful writers," the playwright told me, "but deep down, they really have nothing to say."

A lecturer in a film school told me about his despair. His students, he said, pick up the technical skills well enough, but the stories they tell in their project work tend to leave one cold. Typically, they leave their endings ambiguous -- we leave it to the viewer to interpret, the students tend to say. Sometimes this is an artful device, but most times, a story or a documentary should have a point of view. Without it, the whole thing just loses its oomph. Singaporeans, it seems, have been bred to not have a point of view.

A Singaporean researcher, who has been based in Taiwan and elsewhere for a number of years, told me recently that academics in Singapore are quite different from academics in Taiwan, Hong Kong or South Korea. Singaporean academics are intelligent and just as well-versed in their subjects as any. But they tend to hold their subject of enquiry at arm's length; they seldom get passionate or cause-driven. And they rarely ever participate in civil society.

Our future: consumers, not producers

We have evacuated our minds. What entertainment Medicacorp produces is predictable and low-brow. While enough of us still know how to consume cultural products of quality -- thus the hunger for foreign productions -- very few of us have the spirit to produce anything novel, passionate or controversial. The few who have the spirit will also tell you funders are always running scared.

And that's another important point: Innovation needs a nurturing environment. A bright spark without that environment typically amounts to no more than a flash in a pan. Our politics have ensured that we don't have that environment. So the intellectual desert we see on free-to-air television is a vision of Singapore's future, when we are outclassed by the rest of the world in an age when ideas, knowledge and creativity matter more than ever. And gently, all the while entertained by the best from abroad via the internet, we slip into the Third World.

Yawning Bread 



  1. Straits Times, 12 October 2009, Who watches local TV?
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  2. Father Knows Best is the name of a sitcom series from the US of the 1950s that celebrates patriarchy and traditional "family values". Every episode has the same narrative arc: whatever the kids get up to, eventually the wisdom of the father is proven right.
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  3. I've been meaning to write about our society's interest in human rights, and this comes from that unfinished essay: that we're a society of permissions, not rights.
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