TITV's transformation into Thailand's first public television station began last night with advertising being dropped and the appointment expected today of a five-member board to take care of its operations.
PM's Office minister Khun-ying Thipawadee Meksawan said the five names would be submitted to the Cabinet for acknowledgement. The board would take charge of the company's operations in line with the Public TV Act, which came into force yesterday. The board, which will be in office for six months before the establishment of a permanent nine-member board through the selection of various groups, will then announce its policies.
Public Relations Department director-general Pramote Ratthawinit said as from midnight, the 800 TITV staff were no longer considered employees and that all existing programmes, news or non-news, would be pulled off the air.
For two full days, programmes would be government documentaries, mostly on royal activities, and particularly those of HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana, to be supplied from the PRD's broadcasting network.
"The new board will then appoint the station director, who will make decisions on employment and programming. Staff who do not get new job contracts will not be entitled to any compensation," he said.
Within six months, the board should complete all pending issues.
TITV staff at midnight gathered to bid goodbye to the station. The disgruntled workers clustered in a gloomy atmosphere. Some said they did not want to be the dead bodies littering the path to public TV. At a press conference yesterday afternoon, they said they had done their jobs with honesty and had never taken money from politicians or interest groups.
"We are confident that the board members will do their job fairly and honestly with no agenda to seek personal benefit or to benefit their peers," said senior editor Alongkorn Muandao.
Sathaporn Charupa, chief of the Labour Protection and Welfare Department, said up to half of the station's staff could be laid off and they were not protected under the labour law as they had fallen under the control of the Public Relations Department - a state agency. He said the department was ready to help staff who were laid off.
Advertising agencies and TV producers have cried foul over the lack of official notification of the ad ban.
A source from a media planning agency said its clients had no contingency plan on what to do, as everything would depend on the station's new board.
Y&R advertising agency's chief executive Sorn Chongsricharn said the ad ban would have no negative affect on the company's customers, given that big advertisers had shifted their ads to other channels since iTV was changed to TITV.
He said the loss of ad time on TITV would not mean a significant boost in revenue for other channels that allow advertising.
"Advertising fees on TITV are not expensive at only one third the cost of other channels. I think Channel 7 will be the biggest beneficiary and the rest will go to Channels 3, 5 and 9. Without TITV, it's good for advertisers - they have fewer options to choose from," Sorn said.
Traiphop Limpraphat, a television host and head of producer Born and Associates, criticised the government for the sudden change. He called it a big hoax. "If the new programmes are those announced earlier, the government is deceiving the public," he said.
"It announced that a public TV station must be independent from government intervention or business-sector control. But the announced programmes contain some government programmes. Indeed, the board must not be appointed by the government. If we don't call this intervention, what else can we call it?"
He urged the board to conduct hearings so the public can say what it wants of the public TV channel.
"This needs massive public scrutiny given the involvement of taxpayers' money. This is a big hoax and I will not let anyone fool the public," he said.
Phusit Laithong, deputy managing director of producer TV Thunder, also questioned the government's move following the announcement of the new programmes. He urged the public to question if any particular party would benefit from the transformation.
"From our discussions, no producers have been notified of the unplugging. We're still producing programmes and our most recent tapes could last until late February. This will cause damage," he said.
Under the Public TV Act, TITV, which earns about Bt2 billion in annual ad revenue, would be financed by "six taxes" of about Bt2 billion annually. Its original operator, iTV Plc, posted net profits of Bt205 million in 2004 and Bt678 million in 2005. With provisions for additional concession fees, it made a net loss of Bt1.78 billion. The concession was revoked in March 2006 following iTV's failure to pay fines of over Bt100 billion.
The PM's Office was recently ordered to settle the fines through arbitration. There are questions over what the government will do if the fines are settled at a level acceptable to and payable by iTV.