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Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Asia from an Asian perspective

Singapore’s Channel News Asia plans to penetrate the US and European pay TV markets, but faces challenges posed by surging social media.

SINGAPORE television, which helped Lee Kuan Yew defeat his left-wing foes and stay in power for 50 years, plans to go worldwide 24 hours a day from next year.

The global push by the state-owned Channel News Asia (CNA) to extend its reach from Asia to cover the United States and Europe is an ambitious project, given the adverse cable news market.

Last week, America’s CNN (Cable News Network), despite its vast resources and experience, reported a ratings drop of up to 50% in the first quarter.

All three global networks suffered declines, having lost audiences to the new digital media.

The declines are not deterring CNA, whose predecessor had played a historic role in the People’s Action Party’s (PAP) elimination of the powerful left-wing Barisan Sosialis in the 60s.

Despite its near-monopoly, circulation of Singapore’s main Straits Times broadsheet has stagnated.

“For us to be a true global player in the news channel space we need to broadcast 24 hours, every hour on the hour, with live news,” said a CNA spokesman.

“This will eventually allow us to penetrate the US and European pay TV markets, so that people there can get Asian news with Asian perspectives whenever they want.”

Having their state TV moving into the world arena has raised a little sense of pride among some Singaporeans.

Informed citizens, however, are questioning its chances of success considering that it is considered to be a government mouthpiece. And taxpayers are worried about footing the bill for potential losses.

A small-time businessman commented: “I wish it well, but if powerful global networks like CNN are losing out, what chance has the state-owned Singapore TV to succeed?”

Not everyone agrees. A polytechnic lecturer said Singapore has become an economic international player and a provider of jobs for professionals.

So TV has a small part, but, he added, if it is thinking of taking on the big players in providing global news, “I would say forget it”.

The vast majority of Americans and Europeans don’t really care for Singapore’s idea of “Asian coverage of Asian news”.

The biggest handicap is its ties to the government.

Most people I talked to doubted if many Westerners would be well disposed to news from a government news channel (BBC is different because of its long history of objective reporting).

Even among Singaporeans, one in every two believes that the Singapore media is biased, according to a survey last year.

On average, in a normal day, however, newspapers and television are the top sources of news here, with the Internet coming in a close third.

But in last year’s election, some 48% turned to Yahoo! for quick news, with CNA in second place at 23.8%. Newspapers, however, were the people’s main source of news.

Television was launched in 1963, the year Singapore joined Malaysia, and when it left two years later, the telecast of Lee Kuan Yew weeping caught the imagination of the world.

At the launch, only 2,400 Singaporean homes had TV sets, but tens of thousands of people, young and old, would sit on wooden benches in community centres to watch the magic box.

As a 23-year old then, I joined enthusiastic friends to meet outside a department store TV display window and watched celluloid scenes of the PAP developing Jurong or building public flats at a rate of one unit every 45 minutes.

It was a powerful message for a poor squatter country.

Eventually the leftwing hold among the vast Chinese-educated was broken. To the viewers, moving pictures could not lie.

The hard-working Barisan Sosialis representatives resorted to knocking on doors to get to the people, but they could not match the power of moving pictures.

Since then, the government has kept 100% ownership of television. Despite much talk of going public, TV news remain in official hands. About half of Singaporeans polled last year felt that “there is too much government control of newspapers and television”, according to an analysis by the Institute of Policy Studies.

With 3.37 million Internet users out of a 5.18 million population, the expectation is that while mainstream newspapers and TV remain on top of the pole for news, erosion among young readers is likely to continue.

This is because CNA is widely perceived as the voice of the government. An advisory committee said in 2009 that this factor could hamper its credibility as a news conduit.

The circulation of the Straits Times has been dismal over the decades despite a big population jump.
Not exactly good news for the ruling PAP.

An authoritative source once told me that for the PAP to remain in power, it must have control over three things – security forces, finance and the media.

The first two remain more or less in place, but control of the third – the media – is being challenged by the day by the surging social media where every citizen can be both a reporter and a reader.


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