Sun, 13 Feb 2000

News is hot on television

News really sells. Private televisions now enjoy the freedom to cover and broadcast it -- anytime -- which was forbidden by Soeharto regime.

JAKARTA (JP): There is good news and bad news about the media industry. First the bad news: a number of publications, including those born during the initial euphoria of newfound press freedom, have folded after failing to survive the tough competition.

Now the good news: the electronic press business is thriving. Many online newspapers and independent news websites are now available in the Internet -- something that did not exist here until a few years ago. News has become a hot commodity.

Private television stations are still facing financial difficulties - that is an old story. However, there is hope of recovery with the increasing advertising expenditure in media. A survey by AC Nielsen Indonesia reveals that last year television grabbed Rp 3.4 trillion (US$465 million) in ad expenditure compared to Rp 1.2 trillion in newspapers, Rp 186 billion in magazines, Rp 94.4 billion in tabloids. The potential business opportunity in television has lured the private sector to plunge into the area, as reflected in the government's issuance of licenses for five new TV stations.

Entertainment still dominates television and radio. But news is getting more and more room.

Gone is the time when news on radio and television was the monopoly of the government. Turn on the radio on your way to work and you can hear not only music and traffic reports but also the latest news.

News programs are broadcast extensively by the country's five private televisions: RCTI, SCTV, TPI, ANteve and Indosiar.

At 6 a.m. you won't see any video clips, melodrama or movies. All channels are packed with news.

The public cheers and ad revenue pours in.

"Our news program contributes the second biggest ad revenue after prime-time movies," SCTV spokesman Budi Darmawan said.

News has become one of the main attractions in television. Every day each station airs at least two news programs that they produce themselves, in addition to the two news programs of state TVRI that must be relayed by private televisions at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m. as stipulated by Broadcasting Law No. 24/1997.

The oldest private television station, RCTI, when it launched Seputar Jakarta (Around Jakarta) in September 1989, a month after the station opened, it emphasized it would only present feature news.

Why not hard news? Because then minister of information Harmoko issued decree No. 111/1990 which banned private television and radio stations airing their own news programs. Later Seputar Jakarta became Seputar Indonesia, and at the end of 1991 it started to present hard news.

"There was positive response from members of the public, they started to invite us to cover their events," Ray Wijaya, producer of Seputar Indonesia, said.

And the government did not object to the coverage -- as long as the news was not critical. "Up until last year, we were still 'partisan' -- well, you knew that. But we have now determined to be independent and nonpartisan," Ray said. To maintain its independency, Wijaya said the station would cover events as they are. "We'll leave it all up to the public (to form an opinion)."

Due to the lack of press freedom in the old days, private television stations, like newspapers and magazines, were timid in their coverage until the riots that ravaged Jakarta in May 1998. Jakarta was on fire, people were gripped by fear and the whole country wanted to know what was happening. After a day of intense coverage by private stations, the government intervened and introduced a TV pool, ordering private stations to relay censored broadcasts at certain hours.

After Soeharto stepped down as president, his successor BJ Habibie opened the gate to press freedom. The policy has been maintained by President Abdurrahman Wahid. Abdurrahman even went further with a controversial decision to close down the ministry of information.

Private TV stations have since become bolder. Even though they are supposed to relay TVRI news at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., they sometimes air other programs instead, ranging from political talk show Menuju Indonesia Baru (Toward a New Indonesia) and sports events to movies and concerts. The TVRI news is often rescheduled to another time, or sometimes not aired at all.

Since late last year, RCTI has Nol Kilometer (Zero Kilometer), a news and cultural program that is broadcast every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 9 p.m. "We want to serve the public in our own way," Wijaya said.

So far there has been no objection from the government.

The Broadcasting Law is in fact not relevant to the current situation as it is against Abdurrahman's idea of press autonomy. A call for amendment of the law has been made by, among others, the Indonesian Broadcasting Society. Hinca Panjaitan of the society said it had sent a copy of its proposed amendment to the House of Representatives, but considering there are dozens of other laws which need to be revised, it is unlikely that the House will prioritize amendment of the Broadcasting Law.

Television is a powerful media with its superiority over print media. It presents not only sound but also pictures, and the news can be transmitted instantly in live coverage. What's more, it also has a much wider coverage than newspapers or magazines. According to AC Nielsen, the TV viewership reaches 79.3 percent compared to magazine readership (29.3 percent) newspapers (31.9 percent) and radio (42.1 percent).

RCTI has five news programs with a total of three hours and a half of airtime, while SCTV sets aside four hours for Liputan 6. Its lunchtime and evening news features newsmakers in live interviews.

ANteve has Aktualita, an hourly news break, while Indosiar broadcasts Patroli, a criminal news program that last for half an hour, just before noon.

Perhaps because of the tight competition to present the hottest news, TV stations also give a lot of time to violence and sensational activities, which is against the code of ethics issued by the Association of Television Journalists. Some people have raised concerns over the tendency, calling on the press to be more responsible in implementing press freedom.

"Some tabloids, and even television shows, tend to be decreasing in quality, looking at crime or news which caters to the base instincts of people," Wimar Witoelar, a communications consultant and one of the country's prominent talk show hosts, said.

In order to grow in the right direction, television needs watchdog to monitor broadcasts. Panjaitan said the Indonesian Broadcasting Society deals only with legislation, and suggested that viewers themselves act as a TV watchdog. Both Wimar and Wijaya believe a committee consisting of media people or public figures, but not government officials, could become an effective control mechanism.

Overall, however, Wimar is happy with the "excellent" performance of local news programs on television considering the news industry is still very young. "Besides, it is better to have an active media and then design it to conform to the challenges rather than face a media which is dead ....

"The press is alive and kicking, and that is a very strong starting capital." (sim)