It’s No BBC: 20 Dismal Years of Taiwan’s Underfunded PTS Public Broadcaster

It’s No BBC: 20 Dismal Years of Taiwan’s Underfunded PTS Public Broadcaster
Photo Credit: 公視 截圖
What you need to know

As Taiwan's public broadcaster forges into the digital age, the government must get serious about funding the network for it to realize its potential.

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On June 30, Taiwan's Public Television Service (PTS) hosted its 20th Anniversary Gala, where artists sang the audience through 20 years of moving TV theme tunes from such classic dramas and shows as "April Rhapsody," "The Sun Shines First Behind the Mountain," "Wintry Night II," "Crystal Boys," "The Teenage Psychic," and "Days We Stared at the Sun."

These ever-popular Taiwanese TV programs reminded everyone of the unremitting efforts PTS has made over the years to produce exquisite, beloved shows. The hosts of the gala also emphasized to viewers that PTS is the most decorated station of the Golden Bell Awards -- Taiwan's equivalent of the Emmys -- accumulating 240 trophies which, if stacked one by one, would reach higher than the Miramar Ferris Wheel in Taipei City.

PTS’ legacy of outstanding program production is certainly worthy of praise, but its broadcasting history has certainly not always been smooth sailing. If management does not reflect on the bumpy ride they have had over the last 20 years, it will be difficult to come to a consensus on the future direction of the station.

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
The entrance to the Public Television Service (PTS) B Building.

PTS did not launch overnight – in fact, it took over 10 years from its conception to its first day on the air. In 1980, Republic of China (ROC) Premier Sun Yun-suan (孫運璿) proposed a new "government channel" to counter what he saw as the deterioration of educational culture due to over commercialization.

In June 1990, the Government Information Office of the Executive Yuan established the "Public Television Preparatory Committee" to formulate draft legislation for the "Public Television Act." However, it mandated that the President of the Executive Yuan be allowed to handpick the director of the board, a condition which incited public outrage over the political meddling.

In June 1993, more than 100 academic scholars and professionals in the art and culture community formed the "People’s Public Television Preparatory Committee," demanding that PTS be freed from the influence of political power. This push effectively put the kibosh on the plans of the Kuomintang (KMT) to establish a "government channel."

Finally, after heavy public lobbying, the Public Television Act broke through governmental inertia and passed its third reading at the Legislative Yuan on May 31, 1997. PTS officially launched broadcasting services on July 1, 1998.

The UK’s BBC has a total budget of more than NT$200 billion a year. Japan's NHK has a budget of 700 billion yen, or nearly NT$200 billion. Those are budgets that are close to 270 and 220 times that of Taiwan's PTS, respectively.

Due to the haphazard legislative process, however, the statutory budget was reduced from NT$6 billion (US$194.4 million) to NT$1.2 billion (US$38.9 million). This wedged PTS into a niche, forcing it to focus on developing low-budget shows. The biggest predicament facing PTS, however, was that it was restricted from broadcasting the daily news.

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
A PTS News van braves the rain.

Legislators at the time were worried that PTS would still be susceptible to political influence, so it was decided that the station would not be able to broadcast the daily news for its first four years of service. PTS thus focused on developing period dramas, children’s shows, and documentaries.

Although PTS did begin broadcasting the daily news in July 2002, the four years without news had already given the network a deeply rooted public image of a channel that was out of touch with society. This was only amplified by the time period – Taiwanese TV was experiencing a news renaissance, and Taiwanese viewers were constantly tuning into the news. This ensured that PTS, lacking the daily news, would have little to no foothold with the Taiwanese public.

The minimal funding granted to PTS was also a problem. According to the original "Public Television Act," the original government's funding of NT$1.2 billion was to be cut year by year. It was only after public rebuke of the insufficient funding, that the Legislative Yuan amended the law so that funding would no longer be reduced each year once it had been cut to NT$900 million (US$29.16 million).

How small of a budget is NT$900 million, you ask? Let’s make some comparisons: The UK’s BBC has a total budget of more than NT$200 billion (US$6.48 billion) a year. Japan's NHK has a budget of 700 billion yen, or nearly NT$200 billion. Those are budgets that are close to 270 and 220 times that of Taiwan's PTS, respectively. Then there’s South Korea’s KBS, which has a budget that is 48 times greater than that of PTS, even though their population is only twice the size of Taiwan’s.

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Photo Credit: AP Photo/Frank Augstein/達志影像
The BBC's yearly budget is about 270 times that of Taiwan's PTS.

The public institutions in these countries are both well-funded and stable. Alongside shows designed for mass entertainment, they can afford to produce programs targeted at various ethnic groups and audiences and shows for disadvantaged or minority groups. Moreover, news related programs from those stations are often the most trusted source of information for their nations’ public.

More importantly, these large public broadcasters provide many work opportunities in the local film and television industry, cultivating outstanding domestic film and television talents, on and off the screen. Internationally, public networks also function as national brands, acting as vessels of soft power and helping their countries interact with the global community.

But Taiwan's PTS continues to run into problems long ago solved by the publicly funded broadcast networks of other countries. When we think of something as being "public," we think of it as belonging to everyone, so anyone can request whatever they desire from PTS. Too many of Taiwan's children's programs are foreign animated series, so people start demanding that PTS produces their own children’s TV shows. Taiwan lacks arts and cultural programs, so people demand that PTS make up for the lack of these. Because very few Taiwanese production companies are willing to make period dramas as they are too costly, thus, this also becomes the responsibility of PTS.

The stack of program wish-lists for each genre of interest cast aside over the past 20 years is tall enough to eclipse Taipei 101. That is more than enough to prove that Taiwan possesses talent and creativity, but because PTS lacks financial backing, new ideas never really get discussed.

The strange thing is that when there are public calls for PTS to get stable financial backing and more resources, somehow there is always an oxymoronic response, pointing out that current ratings are far too low and uncompetitive to consider injecting more resources into the station. However, is this not the root of the problem? PTS’ lack of financial resources results in the station’s inability to create a better, more diverse selection of programs to attract audiences across the board.

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Photo Credit: Jeff Overs/BBC via Reuters
Britain's ex-Prime Minister John Major appears on the Marr Show on BBC television in London, Britain, July 22, 2018.

And PTS, like the rest of the global TV industry, now faces fierce competition from the new media industry. The speed of change in communication sectors has caught traditional networks off guard. It is believed that wireless broadcasting took 38 years to become mainstream, the telephone took 25 years, and the television only 15 years. Seven years was needed for cable news, but less than five years was required for the mobile phone. Judging by those numbers, free wireless TV should already be classified as traditional media, as fixed-location viewing is no longer attracting viewers.

The advantages first possessed by Taiwan's wireless TV broadcasters disappeared long ago, as both viewers and advertisers were lost to cable TV. In recent years, they have all moved online or to over-the-top streaming platforms (OTT), with access gradually switching to mobile phones and portable devices. According to the 2016 Nielsen Total Audience Report, online streaming rates have already surpassed TV viewing rates, leapfrogging the competition to become the No. 1 choice of consumer media. The challenge now in this new media era, is how PTS transforms and incorporates all types of media, not just TV, and provide services for users of new media such as the Internet, mobile phones, and portable devices.

Public networks also function as national brands, acting as vessels of soft power and helping their countries interact with the global community.

But after solving the above problems, and even after merging with other similar services such as Radio Taiwan International (RTI) and Central News Agency (CNA) to become a larger public-broadcasting group, will the future of that public-broadcasting group be secure? The key will still lie in the public’s awareness of the unique value of PTS, and whether they support it or not.

Commercial media outlets can grasp the changes in the market quickly, and their increased flexibility means their existence is still valuable to the industry. However, commercial media also operates strictly to make money, placing natural limitations on their broadcasting scope. PTS is non-profit, so it should cater to vulnerable groups that are ignored by the commercial market and take risks with experimental projects. And its budgets are clear and transparent for the public to see – it hides nothing. In an age of diminishing public trust in private media entities, its transparency serves as an advantage.

TV is the foundation of the content industry, and PTS is the core of the TV industry in Taiwan. Those in management must take a hard look at the country's content industry to understand its significance to Taiwan's cultural and democratic identity. They must learn from the mistakes of the last 20 years and use them as a guide to draw up a better policy blueprint.

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This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language Taiwan edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)