Could BBC model work for iTV?
Several experts see British broadcaster's set-up as the best option for embattled Thai TV station
Ideas abound for reforming the beleaguered iTV, which is facing hefty government dues of Bt76 billion in concession fees and fines, an amount that threatens its financial viability.
Some have suggested that the decade-old network should follow the models of the United Kingdom's BBC, the United States's PBS, Japan's NHK or Australia's ABC, the better to achieve its original mission as an independent public network free of political intervention and pure business interests.
Several mass-media advocates and academics have told The Nation that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) model is sound but they are not sure if implementation would be practical.
"The goal of founding iTV back in 1995 was to provide a public service via a truly independent network. That ideal should continue to be supported as we shouldn't forget that this network was set up following the 'dark age' of information which led to the Bloody May events of 1992," said outgoing Bangkok Senator Jon Ungpakorn.
Jon, who is leading a campaign calling for iTV reform, added that pure business or commercial models had proved impractical for iTV in fully serving the public as originally intended.
In his opinion the BBC model is among the best options for the future of iTV.
The BBC is financed by government budget along with a public subscription fee, with no direct income from advertising on the domestic service.
When it was established, iTV was originally designed to be an independent channel with each of the shareholders barred from holding more than 10 per cent of it.
However, the subsequent economic crisis and heavy losses led to drastic shareholding and other changes, with Shin Corp stepping in as the major shareholder in 2001.
The network's financial failure was largely blamed on excessive concession fees (Bt25.2 billion) imposed by the PM's Office, which granted the iTV concession to private investors.
In 2004 the new iTV shareholders successfully secured a ruling by an arbitration panel sharply reducing the concession fees and increasing commercial content in programming.
As a result of the 2004 ruling, the network's news and related content was slashed to just 50 per cent of the total, down from the original 70 per cent, with the rest being commercially oriented.
However, the Central Administrative Court on June 8 this year overturned all changes made in 2004 by the arbitration panel, resulting in the notice by the PM's Office ordering iTV to pay a total of Bt76 billion in back fees and fines to the government with immediate effect.
The Supreme Administrative Court will soon deliver its final verdict on the case.
As a result, civil-society groups have joined forces for the return of iTV to its original mission.
A truly independent public TV station will come about only when it is free from state and commercial control, they say, so that the model of the BBC or similar ones like Japan's NHK, Australia's ABC and America's PBS are among the options for reforming iTV.
Somkiat Tangkitwanich of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI), who is familiar with the iTV situation, agreed that the BBC model or a similar one should be considered.
Supinya Klangnarong, the secretary-general of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform, said these models were good but she was not sure if they were practical for Thailand or whether the proposed changes could again be manipulated by interest groups.
Mass-media professionals say they also are doubtful whether the BBC model would work here.
Karuna Buakhamsri, a freelance journalist and ex-iTV reporter, said: "I support the idea. We should have at least one such public TV channel even though it may not be as competitive as other commercial channels: there should at least be a choice for people to double-check important news and national events.
"But I wonder if there would be enough Thais willing to pay for it or if the politicians would be ready to approve a budget for it if their work was criticised by it."
Phatara Khamphitak, president of the Thai Journalists' Association (TJA), asked: "Is it possible? The cost of running a TV station is very high, and running it is not easy. Above all, will the public agree to pay a fee?
"The situation has changed a lot since May 1992, when iTV was initiated. Now communication channels are less of a problem for our society. However, the quality and accuracy of content remains very important. The reform efforts should focus on content and the real needs of our society."
Yet Kitti Singhapad, iTV's deputy news director, said he thought it very unlikely that iTV could adopt the BBC model.
He said: "We should be realistic: iTV was run as a commercially oriented enterprise from day one since the government used the concession-fee method to start the network.
"iTV has developed from then on. The public should not expect it to change to an 'idealistic' network or anything that functions like one.
"Don't forget that iTV is now listed on the stock market. Is it worth using public money to buy it back? Would it be easier to establish a new TV channel if we really want what we're talking about?"
Uajit Virojtrairatt, an independent academic and chairwoman of the Civil Media Development Institute (CMDI), said there was a third way to manage the iTV case.
As a compromise, she suggested that iTV be returned to its previous shareholding model with no single group controlling more than 10 per cent of the total shares.
"Without dominant major shareholders, the station could expect to be more independent. Later on, there could be ways for the general public to take part in the reform process," Uajit said.
TDRI's Somkiat said that any previous mistakes in iTV had to be corrected now.
"The government may not need to spend much money, as iTV owes a huge amount of fees and penalties to the state. There should be negotiation to buy iTV back from Temasek of Singapore [which is now the major shareholder]. That's possible," said Somkiat.
Jon said: "The stock price of iTV is dropping, meaning that less money is required to buy it back."
In Somkiat's opinion, the new iTV should be run by professionals, financed by a state budget as well as by contributions from members of the public.
Jon added that special legislation would be needed if the new network was to be free from political and commercial interference.
Supinya said politicians, the public and media professionals should work together to develop a new model for iTV.
A public hearing should be held by the PM's Office in order to brainstorm options, she said.
Meanwhile, Jon plans to gather 50,000 signatures from the public nationwide to pressure the government to buy back iTV from Temasek and turn it into a public-service station.
"From now on political reform will gather steam. Jon's agenda should work if we can put the media-reform issue on the national agenda. Some political parties will likely consider it for their next election platform," said Supinya.