The vernacular Daily News newspaper on August 13 reported the alarming news of the latest move by the broadcasting regulator to "improve" the country's notorious soap operas.
Thais and even some foreigners who have been here long enough know how many of these popular TV melodramas are “committed” to over-dramatisation and stereotyping of characters.
Jealousy, class discrimination, chauvinism, exaltation of wealth and power, violence, typecasting and reinforcement of prejudices against people like housemaids, ethnic minorities and transvestites prevail in these television series. In recurring soap storylines, protagonists often can’t seem to do anything wrong even when they commit some wrongs.
While I admit that a good number of these soaps exert a negative influence on some viewers, the cost of trying to socially reengineer – known in Thai as jad rabiab, or making things organised and putting things in order – may do more to harm Thailand in the long run.
Daily News quoted Supinya Klangnarong, a member of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), as saying guidelines will be issued to TV and radio producers addressing the negative aspects of Thai soaps in the hope that the industry can regulate itself. While such a code of ethics will be non-binding, a warning will have been given and the future granting or renewal of permits by the NBTC to produce TV and radio content will be conditional on a review of soap-opera content, she said.
Supinya, who chairs the committee for the promotion of self-regulation, was quoted as saying that she is aware that Thai soap operas are like sweets.
“The more you eat the more delicious they become. But if you eat them everyday you will become fat. So [the challenge] is how to imbue Thai soaps with morality that will cultivate the hearts of viewers.”
While I share Supinya’s concerns, I do not think this semi-coercive approach being taken by the NBTC will be beneficial to Thai society in the long haul.
Direct or indirect censorship, as well as the social engineering of soap opera content, is based on the belief that people as viewers and readers are not mature enough to be able to tell right from wrong and may emulate bad examples that appear on the screen.
The NBTC and people like Supinya, a former free-media advocate, should recognise that the responsibility to analyse and be responsible for exposure to possible negative media content should not be taken away from the public and entrusted to the nanny state. In the short run, such a policy may reduce negative imitations of “bad” characters portrayed by soaps, but in the long run, it will induce more immaturity among viewers and the public as they, willingly or not, concede more of their personal responsibility to judge things by themselves and pass this very crucial element and responsibility in a democratic society to the nanny state.
Instead of encouraging greater media literacy, the NBTC is apparently seeking to mould Thai soaps into moralistic tales “friendly” to children and adults, but at the high price of taking away the people’s right to analyse and judge things by themselves.
Another parallel is how authorities here try to ban the sale of alcohol within a certain proximity to universities because they’re concerned that students will become alcoholics, while at Oxbridge, each college has a wine cellar on campus selling booze at subsidised prices.
This writer can’t help but wonder if Thailand will really become a “good” society if all TV stations air moralistic soap operas, along with religious programmes and mini-dramas extolling the virtues of the monarchy.
Perhaps it depends on how you define a “good” society. I am concerned, however, that people will become increasingly unable to shoulder responsibility and apply common sense by themselves – and this can’t be good.