Thursday, November 12, 2009

The increasing irrelevance of mainstream media in Singapore

This post was prompted by a article in the Straits Times describing how cable channels have eaten into free-to-air TV's share of the viewing pie in Singapore.

I wonder how our "nation-building" media is taking it now that they are sliding inexorably into irrelevance in an increasingly obvious and embarrassing way. If content is king, then our media must be a bevy of beggars, because locally produced content is appallingly bad. Normally, product differentiation is the standard prescription for businesses in a crowded business space, but frankly, if free-to-air produces more local productions to differentiate itself from cable TV, I'm not so sure it would help the current situation.

On a more serious note, it's common knowledge that despite exchange listing and corporatization, the Fourth Estate in Singapore is, for all practical intents and purposes, pwned by the government. It's one of the enablers of how the government effectively muzzles criticism and neuters effective and organized opposition to its policies.

But what happens when the population itself starts tuning out? Cable TV and the Internet are now viable alternatives to mainstream media. Sure, control of the mainstream media still ensures government hegemony in the broadcast space, but what happens when the broadcast space itself is being marginalized? Instead of broadcasting, what is on the ascendant now is narrowcasting, podcasts, customized content, ultralocal publishing, even customized algorithm-generated movie recommendations. Perhaps more astonishingly, the assymmetric nature of the Internet which allows user created content to be shared widely has given rise to the phenomenon of content 'going viral'.

I don't even watch TV anymore (I don't have cable TV at home). There are just so many better things to do with my time. Free-to-air TV is just mindless, and worse, awful. It's actually physically painful for me to have to wince sit through say, a stupid local production where the script is horrible, the acting pathetic, and even the voices of the (lousy) actors grate on me. I don't listen to the radio either; music's just not an important part of my life. As for newspapers, I only read them because my parents still buy them and they're just there on the coffee table. But when my parents are on vacation (which will happen next week), I won't be bothering to trudge down to the newspaper vendor in the morning to get a copy of the Straits Times. As for online reading, you couldn't pay me to read the Straits Times, much less make me pay for the privilege of reading ramblings by Chua Lee Hoong or the vaguely confessional musings of the Straits Times' resident angst-ridden spinster, Sumiko Tan.

True, I am atypical among Singaporeans, but the ranks of my type will only grow with time. My brother is a teacher and he tells me that the mainstream media is irrelevant to most of his students. [Their pet phrase when my brother asks them what they think of such-and-such a 'local celebrity' is "I care", said in that ultrasarcastic sneering tone that only disenchanted youth can muster].

In my own professional work, I have had the opportunity to speak with psychologists from the Home Affairs Ministry and even they tell me that when they interview troubled youth, mainstream media (and even some forms of alternative media) are irrelevant to these youth. The things that the cutting edge of today's youth are 'into' are wildly different from the drivel that is broadcast by our government-controlled nation-building media. As the psychologists told me, the websites these troubled youth surf to are "very interesting". [He didn't elaborate, and even if he had, I doubt I could have written about it here.]

The government's grip on the Fourth Estate may be ironclad, and they may dismiss what occurs in alternative media as inconsequential (e.g. blogs are only preaching to the choir, Internet audiences are self-selected) but the incontrovertible fact is that the power of mainstream media is diminishing everyday. I need only point out as evidence the ongoing offer of a twofer that the Straits Times is offering in an effort to boost its readership.

Even if the alternative media speaks only to a self-selected audience and is hence of limited reach, the waning power of mainstream media can only mean that the relative mindshare of the government's selected mouthpieces is shrinking.

Ordinarily, this wouldn't be such a huge issue (although some proponents of a free and unshackled press in various democracies are hyperventilating over bankrupting newspapers).

But it is a critical issue for the Singapore government. This is a government that depends on control of the media to keep the population in line, perform damage control when times get bad (like now), go into a spin cycle overdrive whenever there's criticism that might even be remotely impactful (latest example: the Robert Amsterdam white paper), or keep pushing a line of argument that Singapore "needs" something (e.g. casinos, foreign talent, high ministerial salaries, CPF Life etc.). The media is also used as a platform for PAP politicians to portray certain ideas or policies or even themselves (through ghost writers of course) in as flattering a light as possible, or to do the opposite to opposition politicians and their proposals. And finally, perhaps most importantly, mainstream media is used to remind Singaporeans incessantly that without the esteemed leadership of the incumbent government, it would be TEOTWAWKI; you know, that famous speech about our women becoming maids.

Even the teensiest bit of idea-diversity in the public media consumption space, as is happening now, would be threatening as it would dilute or contradict the messages sent through the mainstream media. And the dilution is growing daily and inexorably, thanks to mainstream media's increasing irrelevance. Despite our government's well-known hypersensitivity to criticism, the truth is that the government-controlled media can handily manage criticism, particularly when it's carefully curated into little innocuous strawmen in its own Straits Times forum pages. It just needs to carpet bomb criticism with its own ... what is that favorite word of theirs, "rebuttals". Sometimes, the criticism even presents the government with helpful opportunities to showcase its superior attributes.

Indeed, what government-controlled media cannot endure is not criticism, but being ignored (or drowned out), because that would mean it has lost control of the conversation. For example, I don't consume much content from local media, but I am still intimately apprised of Singapore's problems and issues because, well, I live here. I know that public tranportation is atrocious, public hospitals are crowded, that there are beggars on the streets hawking tissue paper, too many foreigners here, and a visceral sense that income inequality is growing. Yet by not being able to engage me effectively through local media, the government loses control over how to shape my perceptions in a way favorable to the government's policies.

You might argue that even when government media is dominant, there will still be independent-minded people unswayed by government persuasion, for whom such persuasion is ineffective. I disagree, because I understand that the ability to frame a conversation is enormously powerful, and that for the longest time, the overwhelming dominance of mainstream media allowed government(s around the world) to control national conversation on their own terms. Even for the perpetually disgruntled segment of the population, it is difficult to find a coherent voice in a space dominated by government-controlled media.

So what happens when mainstream media loses its reach, its ability to continually whisper into people's ears that all is hunky-dory and that without the government, things would be disastrous? Well, people might actually be inclined to take a look around and judge for themselves how good (or bad) things are and how competent the government is at its job (which is, need I point it out, looking out for the best interests of all its citizens, and not just a narrow slice). Heavens, people might actually listen or read sources of information that confirm what they are seeing and hearing in their own lives rather than what is being selectively spoonfed to them.

And we know where that leads. From being not persuaded that the government is simply awesome, it's a short road to first doubting its competence, and then thinking that the government actually is incompetent (in some respects at least).


xingrencha said...

Hey dude u rite well. N argue quite persuasively 2. But i m curious how u know tt SPH offering 2 for 1 papers if u don't read ST et al. I also tk "I care spot on wth 2day's kiddies!

xingrencha said...

Hey dude u rite well. N argue quite persuasively 2. But i m curious how u know tt SPH offering 2 for 1 papers if u don't read ST et al. I also tk "I care spot on wth 2day's kiddies!