Two local stations are offering new programs, one of them with a government subsidy. But even with financial help, can the shows last?
By Tim Culpan
English is hip. English is cool. And now, English is a national sport. With local TV channels re-entering the profitless business of broadcasting English news, the question still remains as to why they do it. The concept goes back more than a decade, with each incarnation of English-language TV news programming following a similar pattern: it starts with fanfare and big ideas, and dies alone and abandoned by the station managers.
The most recent example of a broadcaster to have bowed out of the English news game was the embattled PowerTV. The cash-strapped broadcaster initiated its late-night English news show at the end of 2001 with minimal resources and scant management oversight. Its purpose: to add cachet to the station. "They just wanted something on air to help raise the selling price for the station," said one source close to the company. Ratings were never a concern, which was a good thing, since they were averaging just 0.10 to 0.15 percent. After three months, the show was canned with only three days' notice. At the time, staff throughout the station had gone without pay for up to two months and the English service was not bringing in any revenue.
Fast-forward 12 months and English news appears to be a hot property once more. "English is soon to become Taiwan's second official language," read a recent report in the Chinese-language China Evening News. "As learning English gradually becomes the island's national sport, local TV stations see it as a great opportunity to give English news services a trial." Given that growing frenzy of English-language learning, several Taiwan TV stations are responding by incorporating English news into their regular program schedule.
The difference this time is that the government has given local broadcasters 10 million reasons to venture back into low-ratings territory. The Government Information Office (GIO), thanks to funds provided by the Executive Yuan, has started paying TV channels to broadcast English news. The government has made creation of an English-speaking environment a plank in its long-term economic development strategy and is even putting its money where its mouth is. Part of that plan includes payment of up to NT$10 million (US$287,000) for the broadcasting of 30 minutes of English-language domestic news per day. The tender process was part beauty pageant, part auction, with China Television System (CTS) getting the contract with a bid price of NT$9.9 million. With 14 staff dedicated to the show and an impressive line-up of professors and businessmen on board as advisors, CTS had just what the assessment panel was looking for. Likewise, the GIO's deep pockets were precisely what CTS was looking for. The show has been on the air since February 1, appearing nightly at 11 p.m. (with rebroadcasts the following morning at 7 on Public TV and 7:30 on MuchTV).
Although it was denied the subsidy, Formosa Television (FTV) -- run by supporters of the Democratic Progressive Party -- decided to go ahead with its own English-language news anyway, and is competing head-to-head with CTS by offering a 15-minute bulletin that also starts at 11 p.m. But without the GIO subsidy, says CTS news department manager Pan Tsu-yin, CTS would never have launched its show. Even with the money, the station estimates that it might lose up to NT$2 million (US$57,000) over the course of a year.
Last year, CTS -- which is government-owned -- had an even more remunerative NT$40 million to $50 million (US$1.1 million to $1.4 million) contract to supply four to five hours of English programming per day to overseas Chinese, paid for by the government's Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission (OCAC). It has since lost that profitable contract to TTV, which underbid it. But CTS professes to be unconcerned about the possibility of incurring a loss by taking on the new GIO contract. "My boss told me don't worry about the budget because we would like to help our government create an English environment," says Pan.
The real purpose of the English news policy is a mixed bag. On the one hand, the government and broadcasters are hoping to further the use of English in this society in order to strengthen Taiwan's international competitiveness. On the other, they are seeking a way to keep the foreign community updated on Taiwan issues. The primary target is expats, says David Lu Ching-rong, deputy director of the GIO's department of domestic information services. English-teaching is supposed to come second. The problem is that it is not easy to accomplish both objectives at once.
Simply broadcasting in perfect English has so far been a struggle. Lining up talented English-speaking staff was "a little difficult," admits Pan. In fact, while one of the aims of the CTS show is to teach English, the station doesn't use any native English-speakers either on air or in production. By contrast, FTV has ICRT national news director Jeffrey Mindich as one of its co-anchors.
The difference is apparent not only in on-air presentation, but also in the writing and editing. The homepage of CTS English News, for example, bears the spelling error "CTS NEWS Magazing," while news scripts still suffer from grammatical errors.
The lack of native-level English resources was one of the major deficiencies that hobbled the now-defunct PowerTV English News. Neither expats nor English students had much interest in sitting through the nightly broadcasts. "The problem was that there was nobody to revise the news scripts," says Stephanie Lin, former anchor of PTV English News. "I felt very sorry for the audience."
Ironically, FTV's apparent advantage in having a native-speaker on air may well have prevented it from obtaining the GIO grant. CTS's Pan says that if his proposal had included use of a foreigner, he doubts he would have received the money. "They said as much," he says of GIO's refusal to sponsor a foreign-anchored show. "After the bid, GIO told me that some judges in the evaluation meeting said that the news readers should be Chinese speakers."
Six TV stations and one advertising company bid for the project, with three of them proposing to use foreign anchors. "Local news should be broadcast by local people, I think," says Pan.
According to the GIO, the selection was based on format, news-making skill, price, and broadcast schedule. The format and news content was to be "anything that can introduce Taiwan, but we want good news, not bad," says Su Ruey-ren, director of GIO's department of domestic information services. "We don't want the English news to be like the local news," adds deputy-director Lu, alluding to the profusion of scandal and crime stories on domestic news shows. Instead, the preferred line-up was to be mostly financial and cultural news, with a dash of political content. CTS is also taking heed of the government's desire to promote the island to international visitors. "We have travel news because it's a policy of the current government to try to promote Taiwan tourism," says Pan.
Compared to the CTS offering, "we're a little softer because we believe that by 11 o'clock, viewers have already seen the news of the day," says FTV co-anchor Jinny Chang. That comment also reflects the show's apparent aim of appealing to the English-learning audience, complete with English-language subtitles as a means of reinforcing comprehension. CTS started off using Chinese subtitles but is preparing to switch to English. Both shows also feature short English tutorials based around the day's news. "Our English classroom is different from CTS -- we teach more vocab whereas CTS focuses on grammar," says Chang.
Same Old Story
While the bold plans to push forward despite potential financial losses are widely welcomed, they are also viewed with skepticism by many observers. "I am all for regular English TV programs. My only concern is how long they will last," says King Pu-tsung, a professor of journalism at National Chengchi University. King teaches English news writing and broadcasting and has seen it all before. The shows might have a "cool and internationalized" appeal for the station executives at this point, says King, but the enthusiasm might wear off once they see the drag on their P&L statements.
King also faults the shows for being little more than English versions of Chinese programs, without adopting any innovative approaches. The only extra value being offered to the audience is that the news is conveyed in a different language, he says. In both content and style, both shows exhibit a particularly local flavor.
"Unfortunately, the English TV programs merely serve as a language-learning platform," King says, and English-teaching resources are far from scarce in Taiwan. Adding another is not likely to be enough to lure either audiences or advertisers. "Also, such programs won't be a source of news for the locals, since that's provided by local news shows in Mandarin," notes Andreas Vogiatzakis, Taiwan general manager of advertising agency MindShare Communications.
At the same time, while foreigners may be crying out for quality English TV news, advertisers are likely to be unimpressed. Ratings for the English news shows average around 0.3, compared to top prime-time ratings of as high as 4.5. "The question is which advertisers would really be catering directly to expats," says Vogiatzakis.
That concern is likely to be raised again in June when GIO puts out to tender an even bigger project to supply up to four hours of English-language programming per day. This time, approximately half the content will be produced locally while the rest will come from foreign news services such as CNN, BBC, or ABC Australia. The exact details have yet to be worked out, but GIO is likely to hand out just enough money to get stations to put up a bid, though perhaps not enough to make the project financially secure. Broadcasters will likely have to gain advertiser support or bear the losses themselves.
In the long-run, GIO hopes that 24-hour locally produced English-language programming will come to Taiwanese TV screens. "Maybe one day, one of the TV [groups] will say it's time to do it," said deputy-director Lu. "Twenty-fours is not a dream, but the time hasn't come yet."
--- With additional reporting by Susan Fang