When the dust settles, Thai PBS must be revamped

When the dust settles, Thai PBS must be revamped

For almost a decade, the public coffers have earmarked a "sin tax" of about two billion baht annually to finance the Thai Public Broadcasting Service, officially claimed to be the first public broadcasting service in Thailand and Southeast Asia.

Though modelled after the British Broadcasting Corporation, Thai PBS is still far from being a worthwhile information service and far-sighted commentary forum in a country desperately in need of a television network intelligently devoted to the public good.

Rather, Thai PBS has gone through internal turbulence and power struggles, prompting quiet, negotiated compromises at the policy level, without triggering noticeably positive changes at its flagship, the Thai PBS television network.

On Oct 9, the board of governors of Thai PBS, headed by Narong Petchprasert, a reform-minded political economist, abruptly sacked its second director-general Somchai Suwanban, previously a radio man on the Thai desk at the BBC.

While the reasons behind the dismissal are still subject to speculation, this is a golden opportunity to rethink the mission of Thai PBS. The casual rhetoric that Thai PBS is a kind of local BBC might be sufficient to hypnotise the uninformed public, but it is in fact propaganda.

The real question, which has never been adequately and openly debated in the Thai context, is what mission is most proper for a full-fledged public television network?

In a deeply commercialised Thai television industry, with a history of some six decades in which networks compete to provide essentially the same wares including casual news talk, folk comedies, teenage singing contests, game shows, cooking classes, imported series, movies, documentaries and cartoons, local melodramas focused on girlish fights over boys and their money and uncontrollable teenage sexual urges, Thai PBS has done slightly better, notably airing certain programmes that allow the voices of the poor to be heard.

Unfortunately, the overarching direction, guided by its chosen slogan "You can trust", signals a justification for all that is predictable, rather than a pursuit of excellence.

While a thorough, rigorous and critical study of the programming structure and impact of Thai PBS remains to be designed, implemented and debated, what has been done so far is clearly not good enough for an organisation which has a lot of public money at its disposal. Thai PBS has spent almost 20 billion baht since 2008, a respectable sum that could have built a decent hospital, foundation, or university.

Leaving aside the ongoing legal contests, it is more crucial that the emerging changes at Thai PBS do not continue to reflect the vested interests of Thai PBS policy-makers and staffers only. There is a long overdue public need for a more and better information and commentary service from this expensive media outlet that looks more like a stubborn bureaucracy than a creative organisation.

In view of the limitations of the commercialised Thai television industry, Thai PBS must be reinvented to achieve a unique mission focused on providing truly important information and genuine knowledge of our day and age to equip our citizens and institutions with what they need to make the right decisions toward a better future for their individual lives and public good.

Thai PBS must stop trying to think and act like a conventional, commercial television network, but instead start to re-engineer its philosophical orientation, directly aiming to fill up the information and knowledge gaps left unaddressed by the rest of our television industry, and even by our appalling universities.

Thai PBS should re-conceptualise itself so as to transform into a flag of progress. While day-to-day news and opinion are still relevant, a new breed of far-sighted reporters and commentators must rise to produce reform-oriented perspectives to set the core identity of Thai PBS. This same principle also applies to the rest of the programming, which must be geared to the same goal. Thai PBS must keep its audiences better informed about local issues as much as about regional and global issues that matter the most.

Superficial presentation and interpretation must give way to a conscious push for higher, deeper understanding, even if this may be accompanied by occasional boredom. While it is a wonderful idea to pursue good ratings, it is not the most important measure of Thai PBS's performance.

This paradigm suggests that the policy leaders of Thai PBS should comprise top public intellectual visionaries with outstanding integrity and professional records, preferably those who have shown a knack to quickly and deeply comprehend the influences of the media on human consciousness and social affairs, while the technical-level staffers must be top-notch professionals with proven professional integrity and a track record.

Only with the meaningful interactive cooperation of the best minds and technicians can Thai PBS perform as a flag of progress, synthesising the most crucial information, brightest ideas and relevant bodies of knowledge together in a manner that is conducive to a balanced and inspirational understanding of the links and conflicts in local and world affairs.

Over time, if efficiently and diligently implemented, Thai PBS no doubt can become a frequent point of reference for international correspondents and scholars.

If anything, much of the track record of Thai PBS points to an urgent need for fresh vision, along with a new corporate identity, policy goals and leadership, human resource recruitment, functional division of labour, programming formats and materials, and evaluation methods and objectives.

The tears liberally shed at Thai PBS in recent days might not be in vain if such pain can trigger some dramatic changes that will transform the organisation and help it to achieve its role as a worthy public television service to support and further our special circumstances, not only in word, but also in deed. 

Boonrak Boonyaketmala is a former professor and dean at Thammasat University, and founding director of the Programme on Transnational Relations and Development Options at the Thailand Research Fund. He has published 11 books and many book chapters on media policy, industry, politics, culture, and society, printed in Asia, America and Europe, and by Unesco. He can be reached at responses1234@yahoo.com.

Boonrak Boonyaketmala

Former dean at Thammasat University

Boonrak Boonyaketmala is a former professor and dean at Thammasat University, and programme director at the Thailand Research Fund. He is the author of 11 books and many book chapters on media policy, industry, politics, culture and society printed in Asia, America, and Europe, and by Unesco. Comments welcome at responses1234@yahoo.com.

Email : responses1234@yahoo.com

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