1999 / 4月
Compiled by Teng Sue-feng /photos courtesy of Hsueh Chi-kuang /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
Every day the talking heads enter our homes, speaking on and on about all kinds of stuff. As personifications of television station images, they are regarded by many as celebrities or pop idols, and some of them have even switched careers to become rising political stars.
Stella Yeh, an anchor for CTN, and Paul Lee, an anchor for CTS, have worked for numerous television stations and are well-established senior members of their profession. For many years, they read the news to audiences in Taiwan and also participated in news production. What influences the way these senior anchors, who are at once professional journalists and icons of popular culture, handle news? What thoughts do they have about the current television environment? And how should we in the audience "choose" between the news on offer?
In conveying the news, we anchors serve as spokespersons, and our interpretation of the news can be equated with the station's interpretation. In the past, when someone mentioned TTV, you would think of Sheng Chu-ju and Ku An-sheng; CTV would bring to mind Hsiung Lu-yang; and CTV Li Yen-chiu.
Why do anchors become celebrities? Perhaps it's partly related to newspapers expanding and, with a greater demand for copy, putting news about anchors on the celebrity pages of their entertainment sections. Now anchors are asked to pose for pretty newspaper photos. Once I told a newspaper reporter that it should be enough just to come and take photos of me as I worked, and the reporter responded that a pretty posed picture would be printed in color as opposed to just black and white, and that all of the other women anchors had similar photos. So I asked, what about the men? And she responded, "When you photograph the men, they're always wearing the same few colors and they don't look good." It was then that I realized that we were quite literally just providing color. In the past, when there were just three television stations in Taiwan, the anchors didn't need to increase their name recognition. But now, with so many new cable stations, television stations are being very aggressive about promotion. During the Chinese New Year's holidays, you often see newspaper photographs of anchors in red clothing holding New Year's couplets or traditional lanterns.
The big myth
The biggest problem with current television news is the ratings myth.
Everyone is complaining about the focus on "community news" [a news category in Taiwan that encompasses crime and other social phenomena, particularly the more seamy]. When Paul Lee first started working at CTS, the other two original stations got nervous and started talking about bringing out secret weapons of their own. CTS reported on those scantily clad young beauties who sell betel nuts in glass-walled roadside stands, CTV did an expose of hidden cameras in love hotels, and TTV did a series on the tea shops in Taichung [where the tables are particularly low, forcing the young waitresses in miniskirts to bend over]. I ran into Ku An-sheng, head of news at TTV, and I told him that it shouldn't be so easy to lead us astray from our original conception of news. He said, "There's nothing we can do about it; the ratings are particularly high for that segment." With everyone trying to give the audience what they want, we end up with this tragic outcome. And then we comfort ourselves, or at least numb the pain, by saying there's nothing we can do about it, that the station has to compete for higher ratings because it survives on advertising revenue.
But we are professionals, and, rather than pandering to the audience, we should be directing public taste. Why can't we forget about the ratings and just do our jobs reporting the news?
Society wants the media to regulate itself, but that's impossible, and the media is stooping lower and lower. In the past, when we filmed prostitutes or AIDS patients we would obscure their faces and distort their voices to protect their rights. It was no easy feat to reach such a consensus, but then, when the new media outlets came on the scene, the old order was toppled overnight. If people aren't taken to task for ignoring these conventions, they'll end up leading others astray.
When dealing with the news, every day you end up trying to balance contradictory aims. When there were rumors about a scandalous relationship between Chou Yu-kou and Huang Yi-chiao, what could have been explained clearly in three minutes was given five minutes in order to satisfy the audience's voyeuristic desires. This relates to another myth about the so-called "right to know." The right to know what? The private and personal? A scandal's lurid details?
It isn't like I haven't been protesting. One of the reasons I left STV was that one of our general managers, who came from Hong Kong, held up the Hong Kong Television program "City Chase" as a model. The show had once reported on Hong Kongers who had mistresses in mainland China. When the news came out, one wife jumped from a building with her child, and the show got very high ratings. He wanted our news to be more sensational, but there was no way I could do that, so I quit.
Resignation or revolution
But a television news worker trying to fight these problems from the inside is throwing straws to the wind. Change has got to come from outside. Except for those who give up television altogether, few people are going to take responsibility on themselves to serve as the "last line of defense." We need to make a living and find working in television news interesting, so the most we're likely to do is grumble every once in a while. And so for the "Taipei Gridlockers" radio show that I host in the mornings on Voice of Taipei, there is a regular segment on observing the media. It combines commentary from scholars and representatives of the press associations, as well as from members of the public, such as mothers who think there is too much violence on television and want to organize a pressure group.
When television stations were first set up in Taiwan, the government had control over pretty much all of the content. Television news didn't have a particularly high status in society, and you would see the same faces over and over again on the three stations. Since it was easy to obtain audience share, it wasn't necessary to promote the news. After the number of channels grew, television needed more faces for news broadcasts, and the competition between stations grew. Commercialization isn't a sin, but television news has become a product for which there is great market competition.
The three over-the-air stations were protected from competition for a time, but now the fundamentally commercial nature of television news is clear to see, and with no one to protect you, you must provide for the welfare of the staff and meet your obligations to shareholders. To put it another way, it's all about survival.
News that's not news
Under capitalism, sensationalism is something common to all media: television stations, newspapers and magazines are all facing the same problem. Before the repeal of martial law, the three television stations were very conservative. There were many voices that simply weren't heard. Society wasn't giving them space to air their opinions. Did Taiwan not have lurid incidents to report on back in those days? They have been here all along, but suicides and attempted suicides didn't used to get covered on television. Now we increasingly have no choice but to expose the seamy side of life, because with so many stations, there is greater demand for news.
We have hugely expanded the amount of time we spend on news by simply making news out of stuff that wasn't formerly reported. With so many reporters under pressure to find news, mobile units are reporting live on pig competitions, bank training exercises to prevent violence, and politicians' 50-table birthday banquets. These didn't used to be considered news.
What you see now is a blurred understanding of newsworthiness. The taste of some news professionals leaves something to be desired. The cable stations can be criticized in places, but with fierce competition between many stations, when other stations are all reporting this news and you don't, is that because you are principled or because you've become numb?
At the present time when all the stations are in battle-mode, perhaps they've gotten a little off track or become too commercial. The news environment is constantly changing. From being conservative and closed, to becoming a chaotic free-for-all, television news has always been closely monitored by society; it's just that the standard of the monitors is pretty low, too. We clearly know that we have to face the reality of audience choice. And from audience criticism, we know that society still has mainstream values. The big three stations shouldn't stray too far from the mainstream. But society doesn't want every media outlet to look alike.
The media is at much less of a remove from the public than it used to be. In the past if you called up the media to say you were holding a press conference, no one would have paid any attention. But now, if you want to make your case about some injustice, you have many more opportunities to do so. And the media will cover controversies in small towns and villages.
Not a lie detector
But the media is a reporter, not a lie detector. For instance, what if someone holds a press conference and says that he found cockroaches in a certain company's drink? We may never know how the cockroaches got inside, but we know that our report is going to be bad news for the manufacturer. And later follow-ups and corrections don't mean much. What we need to carefully consider is, should we wait for a clear and carefully examined report, or should we come out with a report right away? By not reporting immediately, we might affect the rights of other consumers; but if the company is a major advertising client, perhaps they will try to use that leverage. It's difficult to deal with this kind of consumer news, because we don't know what's true and what's false.
The more media there is, the more potential for abuse. And what's worse, there are too many media manipulators. It is no longer just the ruling party or the government or public relations firms.
Capitalists form the group in Taiwan that has been least scrutinized by the media, and the capitalist structure is what controls the media. What tremendous sums have been invested in the media over the past six years! It can hardly be that all these investors are philanthropists. We can use standards when covering news to prevent money games from polluting the news reporting process.
Stella Yeh, who has worked for TTV and STV and is now anchor for CTN, hopes to find a television news utopia.
Bright and beautiful, television anchors attract a lot of attention. Having worked in the field for more than a decade, renowned anchor Paul Lee has already transcended the anchor-as-celebrity mindset.