Singapore's Approach to Public Service Broadcasting Funding

Mr. Lim Hock Chuan
Chief Executive Officer, Singapore Broadcasting Authority

The speaker is of the view that Public Service Broadcasting can play a significant role in our lives, but it will need to continue to be relevant to our times. It will still need to provide quality content that meets a range of needs and interests and speak to us in a medium that reaches us best. Accordingly, funding for PSB programming needs to redefined in terms of PSB genres, relevance, quality, variety and range and technology (PSB in a digital world)

Public Service Programming

Public Service programming probably means different things to different countries, but the key characteristics that many would recognize to be hallmark of good public service programming

PSB programme should "inform, educate and entertain". This famous maxim by Lord Reith, the first Director-General of the BBC, is equally important as PSB principle-that programme should not only entertain, they should also inform and educate.

  • PSB programming should promote quality and diversity in the other words, there should be high quality programmes across a range of genres
  • PSB programming should provide programmes for all members of the public. The public should have universal access to programmes and events of significance.
  • PSB programmes should foster a sense of national identity and social cohesion and instill in the people an appreciation of multi-cultured diversity and heritage.

The Singapore Context

These are the key principle which help to define what public service broadcasting is about. In addition, Singapore is unique in having a multi-racial society with four main languages So, one of the four tenets of PSB programming is to have, not only informational programmes for general audiences, but also to cater to niche and minority groups, such as Malays and Indians. PSB Programming is also important to Singapore because it provides local content, which is relevant to Singapore audiences. Because we are a global city, our TV stations air a lot of acquired programming, but it is local programming that anchors Singaporeans and give a sense of rootedness and belonging.

What constitutes PSB programming? It includes genres such as news, current affairs, info-education, quality drama, children, arts, Malay and Indian programming. Free-to­air broadcasters are expected to provide PSB programming in these genres. For example, TCS 8, the only Chinese free-to-air channel in Singapore, has to air a specific number of hours of PSB programming in a week, including news, current affairs, info-education, drama and children programmes. Some of these programmes have to be provided by the broadcaster (using its own resources) and Singapore Broadcasting Authority funds some.

Singapore Broadcasting Authority

The Singapore Broadcasting Authority is a regulator and promoter of broadcasting industry. SBA collects annual license fees (which amount to $110 per year for colour TV and $ 27 a year for a car radio). The money collected from these annual license fees, together with a government grant, is used to finance public service programming.

PSB funding is given to our free-to-air broadcasters, namely Television Corporation of Singapore, Media Corps News, Singapore Television Twelve and the Radio Corporation of Singapore.

In the case of radio, PSB funding is provided for Malay, Indian and arts programming. This is because niche and minority programming are less viable commercially, and without funding support, broadcasters may concentrate on programming for the majority, leaving out niche programming which may be less attractive to advertisers. So, mandating PSB programming helps to provide variety and diversity in broadcasting.

Although SBA does not fund the mainstream English and Mandarin stations on Radio, they are expected to air a minimum number of hours of News and Info-education programmes. This is to ensure that each station provides sufficient information content to its listeners to keep them abreast of key issues of the day.

In the case of television, PSB funding is divided among mass channel such as TCS 5 and 8, which have the widest public reach and hence are an important channel for PSB programmes: specialty networks like channel News Asia which provides significant current affairs and information programmes; and niche channels like central and Suria which provides children, arts, Indian and Malay programming.

Multi-racial Programming

PSB funding is provided to both mass and minority channels. This is because Singapore is a multi-racial nation and key-programmes need to be produced in the four languages. These include news, current affairs, information, drama and children's programmes. Some may see this as a duplication of resources, but multi-language programming is important to ensure that each community is aware of key political, social and economic issues and how they relate to the nation as a whole.

Good PSB programming should not only cater specifically to a community, but also foster social cohesion and better understanding of each other. For example, we encourage drama which reflects multi-racial composition of Singapore (such as the popular sitcom Under the Roof) and we have funded the programmes, which promote a better understanding of the diversity food, culture and customs in Singapore.

In short, racial diversity is an important guiding principle for PSB programming in Singapore, celebrating what is special to each community and reflecting the richness and cultural diversity of life in Singapore.

Commissioning and Local Content

As mentioned earlier that one of the key principle of PSB programming is developing local content. Since 1998, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority has worked towards increasing local content by commissioning TV programmes from broadcasters and encouraging them to outsource to independent production houses.

Each year, SBA sets aside about $ 6 million worth of funds for commissioning. The scheme is an extension of public service programming, as the genres we support are usually public services in nature. In some cases, we help to kick start new genres that the broadcasters are cautious to experiment with. For example SBA funded SPIN, the first teen drama series on TCS5. The series has entered its second season and it emerged as one of the top programmes on TCS 5 in April, beating ALLY MCBEAL and X-FILES.

This illustrates the strengths and attraction of local programming. And in case, you are wondering why we supported teen drama, because, it is useful vehicle for reaching out to teens. Messages are more palatable in the form of drama, and the ratings would seem to support this.

Since the commissioning scheme began two years ago, over 260 hours of programmes have been commissioned. They include dramas and documentaries in celebration of UN year of older persons. A documentary series on the Singapore film industry; a series on challenges facing Malay community in the new millennium and a series on Indian pioneers in. Singapore.

Funding for Digital TV

To sum up, SBA provides funding for public service broadcast programmes in the four official languages (English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil) and we also commission specific programmes on yearly basis.

In addition, we are now looking at funding programme to support digital radio and TV. SBA has recently set up a Digital Broadcasting Development Fund to encourage the development of original, innovative and high quality digital broadcasting content and services.

In the field of digital radio programming, SBA intends to support projects, which will give value-added programming to radio. One example is the development of programme and non —programme associated data such as traffic and whether reports, business information etc. We also hope to encourage radio broadcasters to set up more niche stations, as more channels will be available with digital broadcasting.

As for digital television, we hope to encourage high definition broadcasts, for examples key national events can be televised on high definition, or could allow viewers to view programmes from a multi-camera perspective. We will also help to fund programmes with enhanced features such as interactivity or programmes, which are linked to informative websites. This is a new ball game and we are excited about the technical possibilities for new content creation.

Issues relating Public Service Broadcasting

More Channels and Same Funding

Public Service Broadcasting has served Singapore well for many years. But the broadcasting environment is changing. With the introduction of new free-to-air broadcaster, announced in the month of June 2000, the number of free-to —air TV channels would be increased from 6 this year to 8. Although FTA channels have increased, licenses fees have remained the same, since 1994. This means that the same amount of license fee have to support more programming on more channels.

One solution may be to raise fees but this is not a simple solution as there are some who question the rationale of paying license fees especially when broadcasters are free to collect advertising revenue.

With more free-to-air channels, SBA will have to rationalize its approach to PSB funding. Should SBA continue to support mass, niche and minority channels equally? Should SBA assess which are the channels, which have capacity to reach the widest audiences and hence deserve a higher support? SBA may also need to assess the PSB genres are more commercially viable and slowly wean them away, so they can be self-supporting.

As mentioned earlier, broadcasters have to produce some PSB programmes, using their own resources. This is known as "mandatory" PSB. In future, if PSB funds are insufficient, broadcasters may need to produce more mandatory PSBs at their own expense. Or we may have to look at only partially funding of PSB programmes.

Fragmentation of Audience

A related issue is audience fragmentation. With more channels, particularly with the advent of digital TV, audience will become more fragmented and it will become harder to decide which channels to support. Audience fragmentation will become more acute as more audience turn to cable and to the Internet for their information and entertainment needs. So, is there a future for public service broadcasting?

Future of Public Service Broadcasting

There is a need to re-define public service broadcast in the multi-channel digital world. How will the public voice and the key messages be heard in a cacophony of multiple channels and media?

Our prognosis is that public service programming will be even more important in this brave new world of digital technology. There is even greater need for content that's relevant and of quality to ensure that the public has access to a range of programming that caters to the varied taste and interests in society.

On top of this, it is also important for broadcasters to tap the latest technologies and to extend their reach by encouraging interactivity, with more people not only turning to television programmes, but also going online to get more value-added information.

The BBC for example, has joined forces with Yahoo U.K. to provide news content on the Internet. The aim is to extend the audience reach of BBC News online as people who watch an Internet service may migrate to the TV news programme and vice-versa. The can be said of Channel News Asia. It offers news programming both on television and also on its website. Public Service programming, it can be said, has been extended to cyberspace.

In conclusion, it is my belief that Public Service Broadcasting can play a significant role in our lives, but it will need to continue to be relevant to our times. It will still need to provide quality content that meets a range of needs and interests and it will need to speak to us in a medium that reaches us best