Tue, 21 Mar 2000

'Channel NewsAsia' -- by Asian, for Asian viewer

By K.Basrie

SINGAPORE (JP): If everything goes well, TV viewers in Asia -- except those in Singapore -- will be able to watch the brand new Channel NewsAsia.

The Singaporean government-linked Media Corporation, the owner of this new enterprise, has vowed to make the station the voice of Asia. In other words, the content of the station will come from Asians for Asian viewers.

With an investment of between US$100 and $150 million, the Channel -- as the management calls it -- will be beamed from its headquarters at the Caldecott Broadcast Center on Andrew Road here through the Apstar and Palapa satellites.

Viewers in Asia, home to over half of the world's six billion people, will only be able to get the signal with a satellite dish or by subscribing to TV cable networks in their respective countries.

Those viewers in Singapore, a country which bans satellite dishes, will only receive the Channel with programs specially designed for Singaporeans, similar to what they have enjoyed during the first year of the Channel's broadcast, which has been seen only in the city-state.

The Jakarta Post was among Asian media invited by the Channel earlier this month. A day before plans for the new station were unveiled, the Post interviewed Shaun Seow, chief operating officer of MediaCorpNews, which operates the Channel, in his office in Singapore. The following is an excerpt of that interview:

Question: What is the philosophy behind the founding of the Channel?

Answer: We founded the Channel about a year ago with the idea that we wanted to provide a unique perspective on the elements of Asia. Big networks may have to try to summarize complex developments in Asia in two or three-minute stories. But we think that a story on, say Indonesia, is too complex to be told in two or three minutes.

So we would want to show various aspects (of stories). It's not just about Gus Dur (President Abdurrahman Wahid) against the military, but several layers and several provinces in Indonesia. So viewers in Asia would have the idea that Indonesia is not made up of just of one big group of people, but several provinces with different preoccupations.

We want to bring across (the idea) that Asia is complex. We need to go beneath the surface of what is happening in Asia.

Q: What is the difference between the Singapore-feed and the Asian-feed broadcast?

A: The Singapore-feed Channel NewsAsia was launched in March last year. Beginning September this year, we're going to roll out a separate Asian-feed. It's separate programming for the rest of Asia which will be pumped out via the Apstair 2R and Palapa satellites. If you're living in Jakarta with a dish, you can actually pull our signal down.

Q: Will people have to pay to receive the signal?

A: There are two ways. We're still talking with Indovision and Indosat (about getting the signal) either through cable or via satellite dishes, because your country has an open-sky policy where people can own dishes. So if they have one that receives digital feeds they can actually pull (the signal) down without having to pay. It's a clear, clean and unencrypted signal.

Q: What about the programs offered by the station? Are there any distinct differences from those offered by other established networks?

A: We have, for example, programs from the Philippines looking at everything from environmental to political mishandlings. We produce our own programs on Asia and buy programs as well. For example, we were in Indonesia looking at the students, how they react (to changes in the country).

We heard a lot from the demonstrators, but there are a lot of students who are not as political as the student demonstrators. In other words, to the outsider, to people watching the big networks, they may think that all the students in the whole of Indonesia were rising against B.J. Habibie's administration, the military and whoever.

But we're trying to look beneath the headline-grabbing story to tell viewers what's really happening with students.

Q: When will you start selling the Channel to Indonesian viewers?

A: Hopefully within one or two months from now. We'll be doing some road-show promotions in Indonesia around July.

Q: You mentioned Palapa, how is that deal going so far?

A: We're still talking with them at the moment. Hopefully, we're going to sign (the deal) soon.

Q: What is your concept for attracting viewers to watch the Channel, as they are accustomed to local TV stations and international networks?

A: When we set up the station, we were quite clear that our coverage of local developments could not be as extensive as local stations. We cover Pan Asian in the sense that our coverage has very much an Asian focus. In other words, we cannot be more Indonesian than Indonesian TV stations, more Hong Kong than Hong Kong stations.

Q: You are going to be more Singapore-centric then?

A: No, not Singapore-centric. We're going to be more Asian than CNBC and not as business-oriented as CNBC. We have a generally broad coverage of Asia, but the Asian stories would be more detailed for Channel NewsAsia. We will offer more detail and hopefully more Asian programming.

The concept is to give Asians their say on the station. Whether they are politicians or men on the street, we want to hear more from them, sharing their ideas and views on things that affect them, or even something about America. Because we've heard a lot about what America says about Asia. What about how Asians feel about things in America? So, we'll be having certain programs that address this specifically, like Asia talks back.

Because we don't have enough of Asians. The networks always interview Asians who can speak English, but we want to interview Asians who speak Bahasa Indonesia, Japanese, Thai and translate or subtitle their words.

So people won't be shy because they cannot speak English. That doesn't mean they should not be on the network. So that's why we want an extensive network of commentators, like (noted Indonesian economists) Mar'ie Pangestu and Yusuf Wanandi.

For a long, long time the agenda in Indonesia and other countries in Asia has been dictated by big global networks. They tell you exactly what Americans are saying, but where are the Asian voices? They're not heard. Indonesians, for example, correct me if I'm wrong, may also want to know and hear how outsiders view them. We, for example, want to have Asian academicians, say one from Thailand, the Philippines, discussing the future of Indonesia.

Q: Then why was the Channel only established last year?

A: I wish somebody would have done it a lot, lot earlier because when the economic crisis came, everyone started to say bad things about Asia, when only months ago Asia was a favorite for many investors. Why did they so suddenly change their opinion overnight? Did we do something wrong? It was during that crisis that we saw that somebody should (establish such a station).

Q:How will the Channel compete with other established worldwide networks, such as CNN?

A: CNN is obviously the world's leader. I'm not going to boast that I'm going to compete with CNN. I'm the first to say that CNN is several steps ahead of us. But we hope that we're able to offer value-added services for the people. In other words, if you watch CNN for developments on China or Indonesia and you watch us, you'll get a bit more from us. We know that we're up there playing in the top league because there is CNBC, CNN, BBC, the very established players of English-language networks.

Q: Then why cover all of Asia?

A: Because we think that Asians would not want to see so much Singapore news. And in the future, after we have this regional network, we want to do different versions ... When our market is big enough, we want to have Channel NewsAsia the Indian version or the Southeast Asian version.

So that service beaming into India would be more relevant to Indians. From September, we plan to have a half-hour program every night on developments in India. In the future, there would be more hours of Indian programming.

Then the one going to Southeast Asia may have a different version, that means more on the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and hopefully one that is beamed toward the north which would be more on China, Japan and Hong Kong.

And hopefully in the future maybe even in Australia, where we'll have more on Australian news. So, in the future, we have to customize ... make our product relevant to the local markets. But we can never be as Indonesian-centric as RCTI, for example. But we can offer a bit more on Indonesia, a separate take on the matter.

Q: Who is behind the Channel?

A: It's owned by Media Corporation of Singapore, part of Temasik Holdings, an investment company. In the future, we may decide that theChannel could be spun off, 30 percent owned by somebody, whatever, but the partner would have to share our same objectives and goals.

Q: What if the partners were not residents of Asia?

A: Then it would really depend on whether we had the same mission, beliefs and agenda. We're holding discussions with some parties, but we can't tell you who they are. The thing is that we're keeping our doors and mind open to have joint venture partners.

Q: The station already has its first overseas studio in Hong Kong? What does that mean for your Asian mission?

A: In Asia, when we look at the business and financial centers at the moment, they are Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo. What we want to do at first is try, at least from Hong Kong, to have a better sense of what is happening there in terms of business developments.

Every night, we'll have a live broadcast of a business program produced simultaneously from Hong Kong. The importance of Hong Kong is as a financial and business center, because there are so many developments and businesspeople investing in Hong Kong. In India, we won't do it ourselves. We would commission a local production house to do it for us.

Q: How does the Channel deal with the diverse languages in Asia?

A: As an English-language news network, we're of course targeting English-speaking viewers at the moment. But in about a year, we'll start looking at different language versions of the station.

But that depends on each market ... we can't do a Laotian, Vietnamese, Bahasa Indonesia or Japanese station. For example, in India, some of the programs eventually would be in Hindhi. So it will look like a two-language station.

Q: Will people living outside of Asia, such as those in Europe, have the chance to see the station?

A: Not at the moment. Our satellite will only reach the Middle East and Australia in the east. But we're talking with several parties to distribute our signal in the U.S. and Europe. Perhaps sometime next year. But we're very hopeful that our website, www.channelnewsasia.com, can reach out to the world.

Q: Do you think that through the Asian-feed network, Singapore is showing a desire to lead Asia?

A: No, no. Not to lead. (laughing) It's commercial venture. It's not a government initiative.

The ambitious project of the Singapore-based firm could, of course, raise the eyebrows of other Asians.

As an important gate for Asian trade, businesses and lifestyle, Singapore might have the right reason and position to carry out such a hopeful, but challenging mission.

The desire to go regional was announced earlier this month here during the first anniversary of the Channel. A cocktail party to launch the plan (to go regional) also presented a stunning performance by a group of cute children with Down's syndrome along with their parents.

As a postscript to the interview, the Channel's symbol is a red 'A'. Mr. Seow said the symbol was designed to heighten the word "Asia" in the station's name. This delta shape is also a symbol for change, and the color red was chosen because it is a striking, bold and auspicious color in many Asian countries.