Govt intervenes, forces TV channels to halt expansions

25 June 2004
Source: The Nation

The government yesterday slammed the breaks on most new ventures or expansion plans of the three main terrestrial TV stations.
The move follows uproar over a scramble to control or reap benefits from the electronic media before it undergoes Constitution-mandated reform.

Deputy Prime Minister Vishanu Krua-ngam declared iTV’s plan to split itself into five channels “illegal”, while Army-run TV Channel 5 decided to scrap a programming overhaul designed by RTA Entertainment Co following questions about its right to manage the station’s air time.

The government also ordered that contracts to operate two sister channels of Channel 11 – 11/1 and 11/2 – be amended to ensure that the frequencies could be reformed in the future. The “splitting-up” schemes of Channel 11 and iTV as well as RTA’s controversial deal with Channel 5 have set off alarm bells among media watchers.
It is feared that powerful business groups with strong political connections are trying to beat the long-delayed reform to control key broadcast-media outlets or reap huge profits. The 1997 Constitution prescribes the establishment of a National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), which would end the state monopoly on electronic media by re-allocating frequencies in a free and fair manner.
But the process of selecting NBC members has hit several snags, prompting speculation that there have been deliberate political efforts to keep all outlets in the government’s hands as long as possible.

Several of the current controversies involve the prime minister’s family business and political empire and are embroiled in apparent conflicts of interests. iTV’s plan to create four sister channels was hatched despite an unsettled legal fight with the government for a massive concession-fee reduction.

Vishanu, always accused of siding with iTV over the concession-fee issue, yesterday warned its management that creating four more channels using new digital-broadcasting technology would be illegal.
“They have to wait for the NBC to be established first,” Vishanu said, adding that Channel 11 could be split up because the sister channels would still be run by the government.

Channel 5’s decision to scrap the reprogramming plan under RTA came amid heavy political pressure on Army chief General Chaisit Shinawatra, the prime minister’s cousin, who had strongly advocated the highly questionable concession to the company.
Chaisit, who chairs the Channel 5 board, presided over a board meeting before coming up with the difficult decision to terminate all of RTA’s new programming.

It was only on Wednesday that RTA, a subsidiary of Channel 5 – which aspires to go public – announced new programming geared toward soap operas. The move upset most of the station’s producers or content providers. Now Channel 5 will be solely responsible for its own programming. Facing a major political storm, the prime minister last week intervened in the Channel 5 affair by ordering a probe into the way it handed out a 30-year contract to RTA to take charge of all its programming.

RTA, in which Channel 5 holds a 50-per-cent stake, is viewed by the station as the vehicle to get it listed on the stock exchange.
The Channel 5-RTA deal has been deemed dubious and possibly unconstitutional, as the charter requires independent telecom and broadcasting bodies to regulate the airwaves. A special committee is investigating Channel 5’s business transaction with RTA, in which some 84 shareholders representing prominent people hold the remaining 50-per-cent stake.

Lt-General Chongsak Panichkul, a secretary of the Channel 5 board, said that from now on the station would be responsible for all of its own programming. He said a seven-member committee would be responsible for coming up with an entire new programming schedule for Channel 5 by July 1. “We are going back to count one again. From now on RTA Entertainment will have nothing to do with Channel 5. Since the matter has flared up, there is no reason to remain stubborn,” he added.
The Media Co Ltd, awarded some airtime from RTA, called an urgent press conference to clarify its position.

Under the new programming schedule, The Media would broadcast seven new programmes produced by the company and its strategic partners such as Matching Studio, Nation TV and Mang Pong. “We issued our programming proposals to RTA similar to other programme producers and we did not receive any special privileges from TV Channel 5,” said Sansern Theerasart, The Media executive chairman.

“We run our business with transparency and are willing to be audited,” he said.
Sansern said the company however had not been officially informed about the decision by RTA.
“If RTA does not officially inform us, we will continue broadcasting our new programmes on TV Channel 5 from July 1,” he said.
“However, if they [RTA] informed us about the termination of its new programming schedule, it will have a serious negative impact as all production works have started.”

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