1999 / 4月
Teng Sue-fen /photos courtesy of Hsueh Chi-kuang /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
Journalists Go Job-Hopping in Cable's WakeWith the rise of cable television, the number of stations on which the public can choose to watch news in Taiwan has risen from three to over a dozen. In order to fill up the growing time allotted to news in this new era, television stations have been raiding newspapers for employees. Meanwhile, reporters have been hopping back and forth between conventional and cable stations.
As "watchdogs" who day after day provide the public in Taiwan with "knowledge," are these news reporters changing jobs for higher salaries, or in the hope that they will find a more ideal working environment? What are they striving for?
The statistics clearly show that Taiwan's public has a special love of news.
According to a survey conducted by the Directorate General of Budget, Accounting and Statistics, in 1993 the average person in Taiwan spent two hours and 11 minutes per day watching television. At that rate, one-third of the six daily hours of leisure enjoyed by an average Taiwanese is spent staring at the tube. The most popular type of television program, moreover, is news. In a survey conducted by the Academia Sinica's Institute of Ethnology, 84% of respondents said they watch news and weather forecasts every day. That's 5% more than five years earlier.
Refusing to be puppets
Has the time spent on news increased because the public wanted more? Or have the swarm of new news stations attracted the public's attention?
It's hard to know for sure which is the cause and which is the effect. What is certain is that as the amount of time devoted to news on television has grown, so have employment opportunities for news reporters. They have been job-hopping from one channel to another, from newspapers to television, and from the original three conventional broadcast stations to cable.
Four years ago, Hsiao Lung-chi gave up his job at CTS (Chinese Television Service) and its yearly bonus of more than 10 months' salary to work for CTN (Chinese Television Network), a cable group that targets Chinese communities worldwide. Why did he move? "The three main stations are too constrained in their political coverage," he explains.
In 1994, when the political scientist Peng Ming-min returned from three decades of exile abroad (he had fled after calling for Taiwanese independence), Hsiao returned from his interview with Peng at CKS International Airport to find that his piece had to be approved by three different levels of management before being aired. The experience left him feeling that this was far from the ideal of press freedom.
An incident that probably made a deeper impression on the Taiwanese public was the case of Li Yen-hsiu. Li won a Golden Bell (the Taiwan equivalent of an Emmy) for her work as CTS anchor in 1993, but was so frustrated by management's frequent interference that she complained that the award should have been for "best puppet"!
Two years ago, the famous anchorman Paul Lee created quite a stir when left Taiwan TV, where he had worked for 13 years, and moved to the cable station TVBS. He said he was changing stations because he wanted to create an issue-oriented news discussion show. The big three stations appeal to general audiences and only really make money in the four-and-a-half hours from 6:00 to 10:30 p.m. They would never broadcast an economically unviable news program during prime time. With the opportunities for a new work environment and new programming at the cable stations, the choice to leave was easy for him to make.
The cable stations first targeted reporters who already had television experience with the three original stations. But with so many news workers needed, the new stations extended their search to the print media.
Keeping a dream alive
The reporters that jumped from the three conventional stations to cable wanted to get out from under government pressure or to advance their careers. But why did print journalists want to switch to a visual media?
Huang Yu-chen, who covered political news for the United Daily News for eight years, is now vice director of news at SET (Sanlih Entertainment Television), a cable station that originally aired only variety shows. When he left the paper, there were rumors circulating that he had been lured away with a high salary, so that even now he feels compelled to explain, "Saying that I left for the money just doesn't make any sense."
After the presidential election in 1996, the cabinet reshuffle took unusually long. Beginning with appointment of Jason Hu, previously director of the Government Information Office, to head the Coordination Council for North American Affairs (a post akin to ambassador to America), Huang Yu-chen beat the competition to scoop after scoop. He took home hundreds of thousands of NT dollars in bonuses alone.
"It was just like when the famous anchor Paul Lee left TTV. Many people thought he was crazy," says Huang Yu-chen, who understands that Lee must have felt his career there was already cresting and that he was just waiting around for promotions. The clarity with which he could envisage his future there left him feeling at a loss.
Other newspaper journalists, seeing the coming of a "media golden age" where words would be combined with images, have left print media so as not to miss out.
Tenray Chou was director of reporting at the China Times in 1979, when Swun Yun-hsuan was ROC premier, and Taiwan's first television show in which government officials faced the camera to explain government policy was being aired. Chou planned the show jointly with the directors of reporting for the Central Daily News and the United Daily News. Even then Chou had a dim sense that the future lay with electronic media.
In 1987, before the ban on new newspapers was lifted, Chou and colleagues from the China Times started The Journalist, a magazine devoted to commentary on politics and current affairs.
Whenever elections roll around, the three conventional broadcast stations-which are owned respectively by the KMT, the government and the military-come under attack by the opposition. Following the establishment of the Democratic Progressive Party, the 1989 elections for county executives and mayors were the first truly contested elections in Taiwan. So as to serve as a witness to history, Chou gathered NT$4 million and organized Journalist staff to produce an electronic version of the magazine with eight main sections, including "The Parties Face Off" and "The Dream of Taiwanese Independence." These were distributed on tape, but because cable television was not yet well developed, the channels of distribution weren't broad enough, and they couldn't recoup their investment.
Welcoming a media tidal wave
In 1993, the election campaigns were once again the talk of the nation, but by then many cable stations had been established and the time seemed ripe for Chou to make another stab at realizing his old dream. He recruited teams to report on the 21 city and county elections, and their show, "Everyone Look at the Election Campaigns," was aired on a cable channel that focused on the legislature in the seven days running up to the elections. As a result, many people predicted that once the market for cable stations was formally opened, The Journalist would form its own station.
But the project lacked sufficient capital and the staff showed little enthusiasm. "With the establishment in rapid succession of CTN, TVBS, FTV and SET, you can see how the big media groups have taken over and how we paved the way but didn't reap any benefits." So when Chou heard that Chao Yi, a former colleague of his at the American edition of the China Times, was planning on creating GTV (Global Television), he "jumped at the chance of realizing a dream."
There are many newspaper reporters who have looked for greener career pastures at new cable stations, and many of the news department executives at such stations as CTN, TVBS, FTV, SET and STV originally worked for newspapers or other print media. Just what abilities did their bosses expect to tap?
Huang Yu-chen gets right to the point: Newspaper reporters, who are "deep plowers" of news, have much better contacts in government and political parties than most television reporters.
Lin Kuo-ching, the former editor-in-chief and general manager of the China Times Express, argues that newspaper and television reporters are trained differently to meet different needs. In television there is little time to prepare. Reporters go to the scene of the news and first try to find things to film. Even a big news story only gets a few minutes. Newspaper reporters have more time to "dig deep and cultivate contacts."
Apart from hoping to utilize newspaper reporters' extensive connections in government, the new cable television stations have also hired them to offer a "different" sort of television news.
Hu Yuan-hui, formerly editor-in-chief of the Independence Evening Post and the Independence Daily, a Chinese-language newspaper published in Australia, is now manager of the news department at Formosa Television (FTV). Two years ago, when the Australian paper closed, TVBS got in touch with him. Hu thought this rather odd, since he didn't know TVBS General Manager Chiu Fu-sheng from Adam and couldn't figure out why Chiu would approach him. Hu recalls that Chiu explained, "I am looking precisely for people outside of television who understand news, for they are the only ones who will be able to break free from the traditional methods of reporting television news."
Can idealistic reporters really find their idea of paradise on cable? What sort of news reporting blooms in this media hybrid where words mix with moving images?
"The biggest mental adjustment is that you've got to foster an ability to visualize," says Huang Yu-chen. The second sections of the China Times and the United Daily News, where you find the political news, often lack pictures altogether. But television is different: "If there are no images, you dump the story-and have no regrets doing it."
"Everybody's first inclination is to look down on everybody else," says Chen Kao, head of news at TVBS. "Print newsmen say that television is too shallow, that it's for people who don't care to exercise their brains. And television journalists say, 'we're just putting the words on television, and our medium has more impact.'" Chen holds that both words and images are narrative in nature, yet news on television is more "constricted" by the medium. "On television there's always the problem of getting the footage back to the station." When newspaper reporters get to a news scene, they can just start scribbling away, whereas television reporters always first need to get a clear idea about the logistics of returning their reports.
The different media make different demands of their workers. When Huang Yu-chen moved to television, he said that he had to adjust to "depth being replaced with breadth." Although television news is often criticized for lacking depth, he argues that if its coverage was as thorough as newspapers', no one would watch it. Hence, when a firm owned by legislator Liu Ping-wei ran into trouble and started bouncing checks, Huang divided the story into five mini-stories with different news angles that probed Liu's business and political connections. "We went for breadth instead of depth."
When television news reporters move from one of the conventional broadcast stations to cable, how do they find that circumstances and experiences differ?
Hsiao Lung-chi, a reporter for CTN, says that when the cable market opened, television began to consume much more news, but breaking political news remained paramount. Take the recent media feast over the Taipei City government's controversial decision to revoke licenses for prostitutes. At a time when 40-some prostitutes were receiving NT$200 million in compensation for being thrown out of work, Hsiao wanted to investigate how much other people laid off in Taipei would need as they waited to find a job on their own or for the city to find one for them. And he wanted to know how the city calculated the NT$1,800 towing charge for illegally parked cars. Although he still longed to do investigative reporting of this ilk, he found his days filled with routine news work.
"If the media market wasn't booming, then people like me would only be able to advance to middle management positions," says Stella Yeh, now an anchor at CTN. If she had stayed in the job she once had at TTV, she says that the highest position she could have attained was chief correspondent. But the great liberalization of the media changed her career, and she became for a time something that she had never put in her career sights: head of news at the cable station STV. She describes attaining the position as a "happy accident."
On the positive side, notes Yeh, cable television is young and full of energy. On the negative side, it is more commercial and faces greater market pressures, and as head of news she was not in a strong enough position to fight off these unwelcome encroachments of the market. She frequently found herself under pressure "to match news content with ad revenue." For instance, when several petrol bombs were set off at McDonald's franchises, the general manager wanted the news to be "toned down," ideally so that the name "McDonald's" wasn't even mentioned and a major source of advertising revenue wouldn't have its feathers ruffled.
Another news executive at a cable station recalls that when a blackmailer said he had inserted poison into some of the food products of President Enterprises, President wanted the news to be completely avoided. "No television station can afford to offend" an advertiser as powerful as President, he notes. Yet, in such a case, when a news story could have a deep impact on people's lives and rights, there was no choice but to displease the advertising client.
Other commercial intrusions, such as consumer news about new beauty products, credit cards, cellular phones, cars, drinks, and so forth, can be handled in ways less transparently pitch-like than the "commercial reports" written up in Taiwan newspapers. The stations have just got to spin it right, so that it appears to be financial news or news about some new trend. As long as it doesn't look too much like an advertisement, most viewers won't realize that commercial benefit is behind the report.
Between realism and idealism
So there's heavy commercial pressure, but what about political interference?
Tenray Chou subscribes to this basic principle: "I'd rather be used by industry than manipulated by the government." News about new products can be "packaged" so that there isn't much of an advertising flavor to it. "As long as you're not making money in truly inappropriate ways, and not from truly evil companies," he doesn't see anything inherently wrong with broadcasting those sort of product reports. But he makes no compromises when it comes to political influence.
"As an administrator, you have to make compromises when you bridge the gap between pragmatism and idealism," says Hu Yuan-hui, head of news for FTV. Hu states that government may sometimes try to influence him, but that he is "no more susceptible to it than anyone else." Both government and industry try to influence the approach taken with the news, he stresses, but he always looks for story angles based on newsworthiness. In the case of an advertiser that wants a story on their new product, he might report on competitors' products as well so as to make the piece seem less like a promotion. With political news, he might try to turn the focus of a report toward issues and away from individual politicians.
With so many new cable channels, reporters have been doing a lot of job-hopping. First, the cable stations raided the print media and the big three conventional stations for staff. But then some of these cable news departments started making layoffs or downsizing their staffs depending on how they were doing in the market wars. The season for explosive change in television news had ended.
Still, the situation in television news has never been as dire as it was at the Independence Post. When the Post ran into severe financial trouble and the owner was unable to pay salaries, he wouldn't even meet with the staff, forcing them to demonstrate. The Taipei City Bureau of Labor Affairs ended up mediating. Such problems are much more peaceably resolved in television news. When STV and CTN laid off employees, they offered severance pay in accordance with the law, and the staff reductions didn't create much of a stir.
Some of the cable stations that are making money have plans to expand their news departments. A year ago, when SET established its news department with a focus on what is termed "community news" (meaning crime, sex and other sensational topics), it originally expected to lose about NT$5 million a month. Now, a year later, they have discovered that they have actually been making money, and they have decided to turn into an all-news station, adding staff in anticipation of the media wars that are sure to erupt during the presidential election campaigns.
Huang Yu-chen, the vice director of news at STV, who was formerly a political news reporter, says that when STV expanded its news department in order to become an all-news station, he was put under greater and greater pressure. If the station did a poor job with political news, he explains, outsiders were sure to think it was "my fault."
Some happy, some sad
With some stations cutting back on television news and others expanding, it seems as if the market has attained a balance of supply and demand. Some who have already left the field say they would never come back now unless a station's news philosophy jibed with their own.
When Tenray Chou left GTV, he resolved not to work in television. But when the US Columbia Tri-Star Television Group bought STV, they let him know that they wanted him to help them get out of the rut of reporting only breaking news, and move the station toward a greater focus on special, in-depth reports. The challenge appealed to him. Yet why did not even two months go by before he changed jobs again, to become president of the Independence Evening Post?
Chou explains that after he joined STV he discovered that the station had a lot of people running things who couldn't make a final decision. Most of the foreigners working there wanted to follow the lead of Star TV or HBO and focus on entertainment, with movies, drama series and shows about pop idols. But the locals wanted to produce special reports that would convey their concern for their homeland. He says that the people at STV are all uncertain about their own positions, and that he would have left even if the job at the Post hadn't come up.
By constantly changing jobs, those on the front lines of television news show that they don't lack an understanding of the working environment. It's a pity that reporters are only employees, and have little power to change the way the stations are run. When they complain and express their dissatisfaction, they only put more pressure on themselves. Perhaps it makes more sense just to pin their hopes on the next job.
Amid so many opportunities, disappointments, and successes, the bright lights of television continue to attract. But do the special chaos and beauty of television actually allow people to realize their career dreams, or just teach them that disillusionment is the beginning of growth?
When the cable market opened up, reporters gained new career opportunities. The photo shows STV's main newsroom.
While some electronic media outlets have been booming, others have been laying people off, and most print media are having a tough go of it. The photo shows Independence Post workers demonstrating after the owner, facing a crash crunch, closed the Post's morning paper.
The greatest source of pressure in television news is the ratings. The three conventional broadcast stations are locked in fierce competition, for which top ratings means victory.
Many television news executives have backgrounds in print media. From left to right: Hu Yuan-hui, head of news at FTV; Huang Yu-chen, vice director of news at SET; Chen Hao, head of news at TVBS; and Tenray Chou, who is now back in print journalism at the Independence Evening Post.
Satellites have made the transmission of news even faster. It is no longer necessary to leave your home to know what's going on in the world. The global village is already here. But is the growing sensationalism of much of the news turning the public numb and number?