“It’s not too late to leave”. These seemingly ominous words were printed on Mr Shaun Seow’s first presentation slide when the CEO of MediaCorp spoke to an estimated 230 overseas Singaporeans at the Distinguished Business Leaders Series in Melbourne last week. Fortunately, no one left -- everyone stayed on to listen, enraptured, to a tale of how MediaCorp, as Singapore’s leading broadcasting station, changed its fortunes and continues to do so everyday.
Asian financial crisis and MediaCorp
Singapore’s first radio broadcast station in 1936 signalled a new era in news and entertainment, and the birth of MediaCorp. 77 years later, it is now a leading broadcaster in Asia with millions of viewers. However MediaCorp can never afford to rest on its laurels. Responding to changes in the world and Asia, changed MediaCorp’s fortunes.
It was in the midst of the Asian financial crisis that it dawned on MediaCorp that Asia lacked something-- an Asian news broadcast station that provided news from the Asian perspective. Everyone was watching BBC and CNN. There was no news on the microeconomic implications on Asians and their lives. Shaun was part of the team that launched Channel NewsAsia International, the first pan-Asian news channel. And from then on, there was no turning back. Channel NewsAsia now reaches out to 45 million viewers in 25 countries.
But that’s not the only change MediaCorp had to respond to.
Video killed the radio star
Similar to the song of the 1980s, Video killed the Radio Star, now it is TV’s turn to be killed. TV viewership has been on the decline. Radio listenership and print newspapers readership have not increased. The proliferation of mobile devices, like the advent of TV in the 1960s, is causing a seismic shift in media consumption habits. And MediaCorp is well aware it must keep up with technological leaps.
From MeRadio, which affords listeners excellent streaming onto their mobile, to Toggle, an over-the-top service, which brings news and entertainment where you want; from watching it on your PC, to switching it to your smart phone or tablet when you leave to catch the train for the office. Toggle also warps time, allowing you to watch what you want, when you want.
However, Shaun reminded us that mere keeping up with technology was not enough, content was still king.
Are you being watched?
Having started his media career as a journalist, Shaun could not escape at least being asked one question from the audience on freedom of the press. He shared that Singaporeans were a sophisticated audience who would not take less than factual reporting. They expected reporters to probe and ask the right questions, contextualise an issue, have a robust debate and argue. If this was not done, the audience would simply move to another international paper or another international news channel. During the General Elections, the media was criticised by both sides for taking the other side. To this, Shaun laughed: “This must mean we were doing something right!” As to whether journalists were watched by the government, Shaun cheekily answered: “Maybe? I seriously don’t know. I am not from Gahmen.”
Al Jazeera and Channel NewsAsia
Another member of the audience asked if Channel NewsAsia could be like Al Jazeera. Shuan shared that Aljazeera had come out as the voice of the Middle East. It let the rest of the world know that there was more than one viewpoint, more than the usual angry rhetoric. Channel NewsAsia was the equivalent for Asia. This was not easy as there were many voices and much diversity of views. Its role was to let the world know that Asia was not just made up of China and Japan. That Thailand was not just about sweat shops, that Myanmar was not just about human rights issues.
Media’s role in creating the Singaporean identity
Media had an important part to play in this. How large this role was, depended on audience penetration. Shaun shared that our Chinese channels had a lot of local content and saw high TV ratings. However, the same could not be said for Channel 5. The English language viewer was spoilt for choice with shows coming out of Hollywood and the rest of the English-speaking world. MediaCorp knew it would be hard to compete in this market. Instead of trying to produce million-dollar-per-episode shows like Desperate Housewives or A Game of Thrones, Channel 5 aimed to be a townhall where the Singaporean audience came back to for local news and content.
With this, the Distinguished Business Leader Series ended, overrunning by almost half an hour. However, it was not over for Shaun, who never got a bite to eat at dinner, as group after group of overseas Singaporeans approached him to chat.
By Jean Tan