Media


Changes to media ownership laws have been proposed by the Korea Communications Commission according to a Variety article on 3 September.

Korean President Lee Myung-bak has followed this up with a statement that indicates the government’s desire to have a globally competitive media player with the scale to make an impact in international markets.

The government should create an environment to enable the advent of a world-class media firm with global competitiveness by drastically loosening the string of regulations on the broadcasting and communications sector.

From the KCC report, the government’s strategy to achieve this appears to be not through lifting foreign investment limits but by loosening cross-media ownership laws.

The stringent regulations on ownership and multiple ownership prohibit the broadcasting sector from expanding through new investments and mergers and acquisitions”

New media environments have challenged the legitimacy of incumbent cross-media ownership laws, but one does have to wonder if the way to a more globally competitive media conglomerate would not be best achieved by relaxing foreign investment restrictions, no matter how unpalatable that may be.

In other words, despite ideological resistance in Korea to opening up the media industry to foreign players, this may provide an avenue of providing greater diversity in the Korean media while not restricting plurality and freedom of speech. This is particularly the case in Korea where censorship law are stricter than in many other democracies, and a further concentration of power in the media – and big business groups in general – is precisely what successive administrations have been fighting to reform.

Outsourcing and downsizing is a common theme in media as it is in most industries. But the announcement from Fairfax in Australia that it will be cutting 550 jobs raises the familiar question of whether the quality of news can remain the same with fewer journalists (see article in The Australian Fairfax sheds 550 jobs and quality journalism).

The clear response to the announcement has been concern that editorials, and in particular investigatory journalism will suffer, reducing the “fourth estate’s” ability to act as society’s monitor and watchdog over business and government.

The move towards outsourcing news stories – particularly foreign news – to news agencies and wire services such as AP, Reuters, and Bloomberg has been a trend for a long time. How often have you scanned several news sources only to find the same news verbatim?

Ironically, in the past, newspapers’s adoption of new information technologies was used to rationalise the posting of reporters around the world, as they could report back instantly (don’t take my word on this). These communications technologies however have resulted in a far more centralised production process where a few companies distribute reports to newspapers around the world.

Evidently, outsourcing of articles to syndicated news agencies can result in a reduced variety of available ‘news’ products. But a few things worth noting are:

  • We also have access to a far greater range on news sources online that we have in the past
  • The volume of news has increased phenomenally – newspapers maybe be using more syndicated news, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are cutting their core offerings.
  • Web 2.0, which we are all spending more time using, clearly appears to be challenging some news companies, just as they had embraced the internet as it was. Fairfax did particularly badly with its entry into online services.
  • The Fairfax cut equates to about 5 per cent of total full-time staff. But notable (in my opinion) is that its flagship product the Australian Financial Review is to remain unaffected. These journalists write well and know their stuff.

Despite its efforts to promote Singapore as a creative media content hub, a number of laws, including the banning of political films, has been a fly in the ointment of the government’s claims to creativity.

Yet moves appear afoot to amend the bill to ban political films, with Minister for Information Communications and the Arts Lee Boon Yang indicated he would table a bill to amend the Films Act early next year. (See AFP article for details)

PM Lee’s National Day Rally speech quoted in the Straits Times, however, indicates that the law will be softened rather than removed.

…we’ve got to allow political videos but with some safeguards.

According to the Straits Times article, factual footage, documentaries and recordings of live events will now be allowed, but ‘political commercials…of purely made-up material, partisan stuff, footage distorted to create a slanted impression’, should still be off-limits, thought the PM.

The PM’s speech also pointed to the ‘very restrictive’ laws that banned political blogging posting of political material on the internet during the 2006 election. Does this mean that opponents will be able to use the internet to distribute campaign material for the 2011 election as the Straits Times indicates?

Yet days after the rally speech, opposition leaders have been charged over a 2006 illegal procession or assembly without permit. See the International Herald Tribune article for details.

And PM Lee Hsien Loong himself to these ‘safeguards’ by taking a libel suit against the Far Eastern Economic Review further. The Singapore PM now charges that the 2006 article in the magazine implied he was corrupt, rather than that he simply condoned corruption by his father, former PM Lee Kuan Yew. The FEER story that motivated the Lees to file suit against the magazine and its author was entitled “Singapore’s Martyr: Chee Soon Juan”, and had quoted opposition politician Chee attacking the Lees. See Reuters article for more details.

The National Rally Day announcements by the Prime Minister and the tabling of the bill to amend the ban on political films is good news for the liberalising of society in Singapore, which will further encourage creativity and open critical analysis. But the big question is whether the Singapore government can deliver on these promises and not let the de jure amendments be undermined by de facto details and ‘safeguards’. To date, the actions by the courts and the PM himself have done little to ressure Singaporeans that change is on its way.

Variety has reported that one of the Intellectual Property Strategy Headquarter expert panels has recommended that pre-authorisation for re-use of copyrighted content over internet channels be scrapped, requiring potential redistributors to simply pay royalties to copyright holders for content they stream on webcasts rather than gain prior authorisation. (see posts in VarietyAsiaOnline and commentary on ars technica)

According to a Nikkei BP publication article, a similar proposal has been put forward by Japan’s Keidanren‘s chairman Fujio Mitarai and Itochu chairman Uichiro Niwa , has been put forward as a way to both allow for the full utilisation of copyrighted content that may otherwise be ‘gathering dust’, and as enabler to fill the ever-expanding distribution channels with ‘much needed’ digital content.

[The government should establish new legislations that include a] “more simplified, convenient procedure that could replace pre-authorization by each right owner” in a bid to promote the distribution of digital contents.

The IPSH’s Intellectual Property Strategic Plans have long stated the aim to maximise the distribution of content over digital broadband channels (see Chapter 4 of the 2006 Strategic Plan (in pdf)).

The proposal was criticised by a group of 17 copyright organizations including the Japan Writer’s Association and JASRAC (Japanese Society for Rights of Authors, Composers and Publishers). Free-to-air commercial broadcasters are likely to be against the proposal as well as it not only loosens their control of content for which they own broadcast rights, but also threatens to erode their traditional business model of selling content-viewing audiences to advertisers.

Which situation is better for the sustainable development of the content industry is not a simple question to answer. On the ‘rights’ front, one school of thought would suggest content holders should be able to maintain control of their products and distribute them in a way that they see fit. At the opposite end of the spectrum, opinons abound that third parties should be able to redistribute content provided copyright holders are being paid for its use.

While it makes sense for a corporation to have control of its product portfolio and use it in ways it sees fit in order to maximise return (or minimise losses), allowing content to be reused by third parties may actually prove to be a profitable way for copyright holders to reap returns both on popular content and in particular on content that has not proved so profitable and has been consigned to be ‘locked in the vault’. While the knee-jerk reaction of incumbent rights holders would be to reject the new proposal, it might well be worth their while to consider the merits of a system that (on a limited basis?) provides them with new channels to distribute and gain revenue from their content.

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Skipping from content in Japan to pharmaceuticals in Thailand (see articles on compulsory licensing in Bankok Post and a Huffington post on IPR and access to medicines), parallels can be drawn between the two, where a government passes legislation that allows local firms to distribute the intellectual property developed by one patent/copyright holder provided they pay royalties for fair use. While ensuring the supply audio-visual programming on the one hand and the availability of life-saving (generic) medication at a low price on the other seem worlds apart, they also share common economic properties: high upfront development costs, extremely low marginal costs that make them both ripe for unauthorized use and compel developers to maintain firm control of distribution.

This Channel News Asia article, ‘Singapore film-makers take documentaries to whole new level‘ tells the ‘story’ of Singapore coming of age as a documentary film-making nation.

It tells of recent news that Martyn See’s new documentary has been banned by Singapore’s Media Development Authority (MDA). The doco consists of an interview with former opposition leader Said Zahari, who was held for 17 years without trial for alleged subversive activities.

The incident raises an interesting dilemma of having the same statutory body that both regulates the media industry (including broadcast licenses and film classification) and is responsible for it’s promotion and development. Given, there are certain synergies in combining the two activities. But while the developmental arm of the MDA needs to be encouraging creativity, skills, and story-telling techniques that can sell, the regulatory arm appears to be sending a clear message about the limits of how ‘expressive’ filmmakers are able to be.

The article quickly jumps into the accomplishments of Singaporean filmmakers at international shows, and explains to readers that banning politically sensitive films does not necessarily curtail creativity. Quoting filmmaker Harry Chew (who made a doco for S$600 about skydivers promoting their sport in Singapore), the article reveals,

“I guess as film-makers, we can make calculated creative choices or compromise, like employing subtlety, irony, metaphors and humour in portraying sensitive or political topics”

And while Chew’s comments seem to be urging filmmakers to pursue more subtle and sophisiticated instruments to convey sensitive subjects, the article concluded with an all-too-neat summary for readers:

In other words: You don’t have to rant and rave to be heard. And that’s what growing up is all about.

As justified as the government’s attitude towards political freedom may have been in the past, Singapore runs into problems when trying to reconcile this approach with the new objective of developing and nurturing a vibrant creative industries sector. This link between freedom of expression and creativity remind me of the words of Tomo Sugiyama, Founding President of Digital Hollywood University in Tokyo.

At the launch of the International Anime Research Lab (国際アニメ研究所) in February this year, Dr Sugiyama suggested that Japan’s unparalleled strength in animation had come from an absence of political and religious taboos that gave animators complete freedom to not only criticise but also exploit religious and political institutions as a source of ideas. While Dr Sugiyama made these comments in comparison to Europe and North America, the environment during the development of Japan’s animation and creative industries stands in stark contrast to the situation in Singapore.

As for documentaries, Singaporean filmmakers in search of compelling subject-matter are destined to have to look outside Singapore, which ultimately is probably not such a bad thing.

It was interesting (yet hardly surprising) to find an editorial in the English version of the Chosun Ilbo (entitled Korea Can’t Keep Siphoning Off Japanese Culture ) calling for the Korean content industry to stand on its own two feet rather than copying or importing Japanese films, books, and TV dramas.

Korea really only opened up to Japanese cultural imports for TV programming in 2003 (according to my figures at least – I am always open to new info). Koreans have effectively been starved of Japanese content due to government policy banning its importation. They could certainly be forgiven for binging on Japanese popular culture such as music, books, and television drama, if that is indeed what they are doing.

With a massive local content quota of around 80 percent for television broadcast, Korean broadcasters have faced real barriers to broadcasting foreign content (Japanese animation dubbed into Korean for example) and have needed to source local programs. It is no wonder that many of these have been ‘copied’ off Japanese formats, given the financial legal barriers (and financial incentives?) to produce local adaptations.

Proponents of nationalist and protectionist sentiment need to accept that the flows of cultural content has been far from uni-lateral. Korean content does have its own unique style , and Japan was as caught up in the Korean Wave (hallyu) as other countries in Asia. One could even say that the relaxing of restrictions on cultural imports helped to give the Korean Wave some of its momentum, particularly in Japan, as it allowed foreign content traders into Korea, and also gave the Korean industry the impetus to be export-oriented rather than rely on protection from formidable competition across the water. (again, feel free to bring me down on this one)

The editorialist does recognise the popularity of Korean content in Japan:

The reason Korean TV dramas like “Winter Sonata” and Korean movies do well in Japan is because of this market principle. And it is because of that market principle that Japanese products are popular among Koreans. There is no rule that says only our culture should be marketed overseas and not vice versa.

Yet, the writer feels there something fundamentally different about this case than simple market fundamentals, which lies in Japan’s advantage at reaching out to middleclass audiences…

The Japanese know how to embrace middlebrow readers, in between high and popular literature. That genre is nonexistent in Korea. High literature trundles down its own path, without looking back at its readers. In contrast, popular literature can’t see its readers since they are often too embarrassed to admit they are reading it. And fans of literature fall through the gap between the two genres. Readers who cannot find solace in Korean literature have fueled a Renaissance of Japanese literature in Korea.

So by the writer’s own admission, we now have a section of the Korean public that now is satisfied, having been unable to get their hands on the material they desired, and now, with the importing of Japanese content, their entertainment needs have been satisfied.

Forgive me for applauding the newfound happiness of others, but is this not a good thing? I am sure that the depicted polarisation of Korean content is somewhat of an exaggeration, but even if it is so, Japanese content has found a niche in Korea for which consumers are apparently grateful. In any case, the rights for Korean translations of Japanese works will no doubt reach a price in the future where it becomes more economical to produce local content than import it and pay exorbitant license fees. In the meantime, talent who can tap this “middlebrow” market will undoubtably develop locally and will be able to compete. When that happens though, it will be no surprise if certain camps bemoan the fact that local creative talent has taken to copying Japanese cultural imports.

There is enormous value in nurturing and promoting cultural differences. There is a danger, however, in placing nationalistic protection of local culture above the quality of life of those whom proponents purport they are professing to protect. Cultural diversity enriches lives, but there are also scores of cottage industries around the world that survive purely on rents derived from convincing governments of their cultural significance.

Given, nationalism occurs everywhere. In an inverse of the Korea/Japan cultural imperialism saga, the Australian entertainment industry was up in arms in 1998-9 when the High Court (see Project Blue Sky vs Australian Broadcasting Authority) ruled that New Zealand television programs must be considered as Australian programs for broadcasting under the free trade agreement rules (Closer Economic Relations treaty). There was talk of cheap New Zealand programs flooding the market, that NZ productions were unfairly subsidised, that children would be subjected to NZ accents while watching cartoons (cultural imperialism arguments against the US were temporarily forgotten, and the fact that NZ kids were probably sitting through a lot of Australian programming was not even considered). It caused concern that with multilateral trade negotiations, Astro Boy might even be considered Australian.

People working within a protected industry will always fear for their economic security when barriers to trade are removed. Likewise those who sense a vulnerability of their cultural heritage or way of life will tend to fight to shelter it rather than to preserve it by giving it temporal currency.

We have heard it time and time again – industry pundits, analysts and consultants, governments hoping to promote the industry and provide support for fledgling industries – content industry will drive growth.

This time, an article from financialexpress (written by media and entertainment head of Ernst & Young, India) says that media and entertainment will drive the growth of broadband.

While Asia accounts for approximately 47 percent of the world’s broadband subscribers, India is currently lagging. Yet, given the enormous popularity of films in India (and the prolific industry’s ability to churn them out), it is expected that India will soon be bursting with potential for the digital distribution of content as demand for content drives broadband take-up.

The article, however, makes no mention of the need for the physical infrastructure to be rolled-out in order to give people access to high-speed broadband. There is a clear ‘chicken and egg’ relationship between content and infrastructure, and the article fails to recognise the necessity of a coordinated investment in infrastructure (let alone the capital to provide a bulk of the population with access to it) combined with a regulatory approach that given the private sector filip to commit to extending their networks.

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