Saturday, September 8, 2012

The National Conversation: Mainstream media should look beyond chasing advertising dollars

Asked to choose between making sense and making money, a profit-driven media company would probably pick the latter option.

When a media company leans towards strengthening its earnings, this could extract a social cost in terms of poor content, service levels or damage to the social fabric. But our society can put a stop to this - if we want to.

The impact on society is most keenly felt when programming decisions that favour attracting viewers/readers come at the price of informing, educating or entertaining the audience properly. Society does not have to grin and bear it as viewers/readers have demonstrated in the past they will take a firm stand when media companies venture into socially unacceptable territory.

If you're old enough to remember the controversary over Kodak's Olympic ad campaign in the 1980s and the hoo hah over the Mum's Not Cooking television show, you may recall these two initiatives had a short lifespan in the broadcast media. They came, they aired and were taken off, never to be repeated in sequels or repeat broadcasts.

Kodak's television ad was one of the first delivered in Singlish on local TV. At the time, it was considered bold to script a TV ad in rapid-fire local slang. Alas, it was a tad too bold. It flopped when viewers reacted against it.[It is a pity this ad is not on Youtube.]

The Mum's Not Cooking show anchored its delivery on unscripted dialogue liberally infused with Singlish. Not all viewers liked it though one could say the show's host, Ms Jacintha Abisheganadan, was ahead of her time as her onscreen presence presaged the kind of dialogue that is commonplace on Singaporean English language television productions in this day and age.

Seen in today's context, society would probably not bat an eyelid if the Kodak ad and cookery show were telecast on the idiot box.

But society's negative reaction forced commercial interests to rethink their strategy. Media watchers and social scientists will probably have oodles of material debating how Singlish staged a return to primetime TV. It could have started insidiously, with the odd Singlish remark voiced by TV stars, till audiences became conditioned to such verbiage.

A similar negative reaction greeted the attempt by state-owned TV to include ad time on the nightly news bulletin. Netizens who are old enough will recall that the nightly TV news used to be the only ad-free programme on free-to-air broadcast channels 5 and 8.

Today's Primetime News is an aberration, a slap in the face to anyone looking to Singaporean TV news as his or her window to local or world events. The state of play has degraded TV news into a handful (usually less than a dozen news items) crammed into a 30-minute timeslot which has at least two breaks for TV ads. Peel away political news (which they must air) and hot topics of the day, the news editor is left with precious little airtime to inform, educate and entertain viewers with current affairs. In the old days, TV news used to be followed by newsreels at the tail end of the programme with no newscaster, just news clips of local and world events.

This is one reason why news junkies don't tune into Primetime News anymore - it is a waste of time as news aggregators on the Internet deliver more depth to their content.

From the perspective of the MIW, who seem so keen to regain market share in the tussle for hearts and minds, the poor state of content on state-owned TV could be a weak link in their grand strategic plan to reshape opinions. The short answer: The Singaporeans who matter are simply not tuning in.

We must watch out because the gradual social acceptance of Singlish on TV (vis-a-vis the Kodak olympic ad and Mum's Not Cooking era) and dilution of Primetime News may also be partially responsible for the dumbing down of our students.

The effect is seen even at selection panels for scholars - supposedly promising candidates who are the cream of their cohort - when top students demonstrate an alarmingly shallow view of current affairs and express themselves poorly during the interview.

And when written tests are administered, you will be surprised how many of our graduates face difficulty stringing sentences together coherently, not to mention struggle to deliver a decent presentation in front of management.

Resumes for internships or job applications appear to be cobbled together using stock phrases from some school tip sheet - dozens of students end up parroting one another when they don't make the attempt to tweak the stock phrases spoon fed by their lecturers. When a cover letter and resume for an internship shines, it is usually one from a candidate who makes the effort to express clarity of thought and some originality in content. But such candidates are rare and therefore, grab-worthy.

If we pride our use of English as one differentiator that has propelled our little red dot Asian nation from Third World to First, then active and immediate steps should be taken to polish our students' command of the language (spoken and written) and awareness of current affairs.

The prognosis does not look cheerful when one imagines the situation five to 10 years' from now when today's students (hopefully) rise to positions of responsibility.

Without proactive intervention and capable leadership to guide this effort, this "National Conversation" will go nowhere if people cannot even express themselves properly.

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