A foreigner’s perspective on 2019 – the media
In this final foreigner’s retrospective on Thailand in 2019, I offer an insider’s view of the state of electronic media in the country and, in particular, I attempt to explain the digital TV debacle and why some good may, or may not emerge from it. I will also look at “fake news”, how it is connected and the response to it.
For the purposes of this article, I am going to focus on news, in all its forms. After 25 years in Thailand, I still cannot appreciate the entertainment content provided by Thai broadcasters, primarily because I am not the intended audience. News, on the other hand, is less sensitive to cultural diversity, censorship notwithstanding, and provides a better means of comparison between platforms, countries and regulators.
For the uninitiated, a brief primer on broadcast media is essential. I will avoid as much jargon as possible and will explain that which is unavoidable.
Conventional terrestrial television and radio services have been delivered over the air to viewers and listeners using specific frequencies, or channels. This is where the expressions “on the air” and “airwaves” come from. The specific channels used for this purpose are defined under international laws and agreements and are limited by law and physics.
That means there is a finite number of TV and/or radio broadcast services that can be delivered to the consumer in any given geographical area due to the limited availability of frequencies.
As with any limited resource, gold, diamonds, TV & radio channels, the mere fact of the limitation increases their value, primarily due to competition for access to that resource.
Until 2014, the main terrestrial broadcasters transmitted analogue signals. At that time they were Channels 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 (NBT) and ThaiPBS. Those 6 channels fully occupied the channels available, negating the chance of additional competitors beyond the internet and satellite TV, the provider of which was contractually barred from carrying advertising in Thailand.
Channels 3 and 7 are purely advertisement funded channels. Channel 5 is owned and operated by a division of The Royal Thai Army, Channel 9 is a commercially supported state enterprise, Channel 11 is non-commercial and fully funded by the Government’s Public Relations Department and ThaiPBS is paid for under a fixed, ring fenced, non-commercial budget based in the collection of taxes on tobacco and alcohol.
As you may infer from this, for the over 60 or so years of broadcasting in Thailand, the Government has maintained a controlling financial interest in most channels, but absolute control over all of them for one simple reason.
In spite of the provisions of the 1997 Constitution, in Thailand all frequencies (channels) are “owned” by one or another Government department. The Navy, the Army, the Police and various other ministries and departments are all assigned one or more of these TV and radio channels. They have the option to franchise one or more of their assigned channels to a private sector content provider or create the content themselves. This is how companies like Virgin came to operate in Thailand, as a content provider on PRD and MCOT frequencies.
In the analogue world, for example, Channel 3 is a Mass Communications Organization of Thailand frequency, but the content, and so much more, is provided by BEC World under a build-transfer-operate concession. Channel 7’s frequency belongs to the Army, but its content is provided under a concession won by BBTV.
Historically, the two giants in commercial TV in Thailand have been TV3 and TV7, together continuously splitting the lion’s share of national advertising cake.
The digital version, or replacement for this analogue model, known at Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT), through advancements in technology, opens the door to an increase in the number of services (channels) by an approximate factor of 6. In other words, instead of being limited to a total of 6 channels (3, 5, 7, 9, 11, ThaiPBS), we can now deliver more than 36 channels in the same electromagnetic space.
This has a number of upsides. For the Government, it allows for the reassignment of the old analogue frequencies for other purposes, for which the Government charges access fees (via concessions), it should provide a wider choice for the viewer and offers the chance for high definition services and truly mobile reception.
Perhaps the most significant change, however, is increased competition.
The two industry leaders, in ad revenue terms, became comfortable with their near duopoly. With DTT, that cake now has to be divided into as many as 30-40 slices (TV stations). The amount spent on TV advertising in Thailand has, however, not increased commensurate with this proliferation of channels.
Remember, unlike mobile phone services, terrestrial commercial TV does not derive its revenue directly from the consumer; the revenue is totally dependent on advertising spend by companies and agencies, who are already spreading the advertising baht thinly across all the platforms now available (Internet, DTT, analogue TV and FM radio etc.).
Unfortunately, while Thailand has been served well by the “leap-frog” effect, whereby, rather than suffering the financial pain of researching and developing technologies, the Kingdom has watched more advanced markets develop them, with all the incumbent mistakes and costs, and has then cherry picked the best. For example, Thai cellular phone users had nationally available digital mobile services nearly a decade before many European countries or the US, even though those countries are where the technologies behind those services, offered here by AIS, DTAC and True, were invented and taken to market.
The sector regulator in Thailand is the National Broadcast and Telecommunications Commission, a quasi-independent body responsible for all one-to-one (Police communications, cell phone services, air traffic control frequencies etc.) and one-to-many services (TV, DTT, AM and FM radio) available in Thailand. They are also, by the way, the country’s main censorship body for those services.
You will note, from the name, that the NBTC regulates both broadcasting and telecommunication. It has a track record of multi-billion concession auctions of cellular frequencies, and applied a similar methodology to the bidding for digital TV licences (concessions).
Unfortunately, the two businesses, as financial models, could not be less alike. Commercial TV stations’ customers are not the viewers, but the limited number of companies in Thailand who can afford to advertise on TV, known as the ‘ad spend’, the size of which is very volatile. Cellphone operators’ customers, meanwhile, are the owners of the over 92 million mobile devices in Thailand who pay a monthly service fees ad infinitum.
You can, perhaps, begin to see the problem. When blowing the broadcast TV market open to a 1000% increase in competition, while auctioning off the concessions to the highest bidders in a total market controlled by a third party (the advertisers), then something has to give…. and it did.
Thai commercial television has, in my opinion, always played to the lowest common denominator to attract viewers, therefore, advertisers. This strategy has been highly effective. The hopes of increased choice offered by DTT were, however, dashed as the money used in new investment in these channels ended up paid to the state as concession fees, instead of the development of better content.
At the initial DTT auction there was, what I can only describe as, a ‘land grab’ by both new and established TV companies. TV has proved so profitable for some, that newcomers felt they had to get part of the action, whilst established players felt the need to protect themselves against increased competition. Set against all this, the knowledge that the existing analogue services will be terminated in the foreseeable future (some already have been), and a mixture of greed and panic, made otherwise cautious minds bid excessive amounts for the DTT channels.
This rash approach, which could have been avoided had the regulator carefully studied the regulations enacted in the EU and US in parallel with the development of the technology, instead of just grabbing the technology by itself, resulted in at least 7 of those new DTT services never going into profit and folding within their first 4 to 5 years of operation, with all the concomitant losses of money and jobs, of which there are more to follow I am sure.
Now to ‘fake news’. There is a link. Reporting news had, prior to the internet explosion of the late 90s, been a club with a very exclusive membership. As with any small clubs, all the members knew the rules.
Fast forward to today, and the whole world has the potential for and cheap access to the viewer, with no regulation to control bias, libel or any of the other sins the club used to avoid like the plague. With increased monetized content comes increased competition. To beat the competition you need to be better, faster or more outrageous than the next man.
While self-regulation and censorship remains broadly effective among analogue and DTT broadcasters in Thailand, we are seeing cracks in that wall of self-control elsewhere. I offer the current TV news landscape in the USA as a prime example of bias resulting from deregulation or no regulation, with the likes of FOX News driving MSNBC and CNN further to the left of the political spectrum, with the middle ground now almost completely abandoned.
In the UK and much of Europe, however, strict regulation enforces a lack of political bias on broadcast TV, especially surrounding elections. The centre ground in the UK is held by SKY News which, surprisingly, shares an owner with the right wing FOX News in the US.
The result of increased competition on the internet, where most content is produced for next to nothing, when set against established TV companies, increased competition among the more traditional broadcasters, lower costs of production and expensive DTT concession fees, the sector has become a petri dish in which fake news, misleading advertising and political bias find a rich medium on which to breed.
One upside is that, especially in Thailand, we might see competition, among the small, more nimble new news operators, trigger the return of truly investigative reporting, the kind of reporting which, since Watergate (US) and the John Profumo Affair (UK) has strengthened the role of professional journalism and realigned the relationship between politics and the fourth estate.
The Thai Government’s newly created “Anti Fake News” centre is an unfortunate, but inevitable byproduct of the freedoms many now take for granted. Now that the Thai state’s fight against fake news has taken a physical form, with prosecutorial teeth, we should perhaps reflect on how much attention is being paid to “Fake News”, which can, like beauty, be in the eye of the beholder, compared to the treatment of political lies and misleading advertising generally.
When will the priorities become balanced correctly, to the benefit of everyone?
Only time will tell.
By: Hugh Adams
Hugh Adams was born and privately educated in England. He is a permanent resident in Thailand and speaks Thai. Before leaving the UK for Asia 25 years ago, he worked in television news, sports and post production, including at Sky Television as Head of Vision Operations. While living in Thailand, Hugh has been witness to many pivotal moments in the country’s recent history and has continued to work in broadcasting since his arrival, presenting English language breakfast radio on a number of radio stations. In the past decade he has been English News Sub-Editor for Channel 3 News, NBT World and Thai PBS. Hugh also teaches BA courses in TV and Radio at Thammasat University. With his entire family here in Thailand, “vive la différence” between cultures remains his personal mantra.