The big squeeze: media profits versus ethics
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The big squeeze: media profits versus ethics

The character assassination of Sorrayuth Suthassanachinda, a famous news show host and media mogul, earlier this month after he was convicted by the Criminal Court for bribery and malfeasance may have seemed far-fetched for an otherwise ethically-lukewarm Thai society.

The anti-Sorrayuth brigade, which was built largely on anti-corruption discourse with an ethical undertone, included members of the professional media community, anti-corruption groups, online social media users, and even advertisers.

There was a prelude to this in 2012 after the National Anti-Corruption Commission concluded, after four years of investigation, that they had enough evidence to take Sorrayuth to court. This ruling sent an ethical shockwave through the professional media community, academics and anti-corruption forces.

Following the ruling, social groups organised an anti-graft seminar, while a number of Facebook fanpages ostracising Sorrayuth were created, albeit with small number of followers. Their main central mission was to pressure Sorrayuth to take leave from his popular news shows on Channel 3, a dominant player in national terrestrial television. However, this movement fell short of an important participant -- advertisers. So the movement faded gradually into oblivion and Sorrayuth remained on the air, as popular as ever until a few weeks ago.

Evidently, the recent round of social sanctions against Sorrayuth was, from the standpoint of its advocates, successful because advertisers, the media's lifeline, decided to get on the bandwagon. Claiming the moral high ground was the mantra of the day and no entity would want to be perceived short of such an image.

But does this really mean we could feel comforted by the ethical standard of the Thai media and related social stakeholders? Or is this just another social manifestation of the fierce battle for survival of the Thai media in which Sorrayuth happened to be the culprit?

To what extent can we really be assured of the media's social responsibility? Or are we being realistic with those expectations given the political and economic conditions that the media find themselves in these days.

Given the diversity of the media landscape, it is necessary to be very clear about which sector of the media we are discussing and whether different expectations should be accorded.

Of course, when it comes to social expectation, it is commonplace to demand more social obligation from mainstream media which cater to the broad general public, rather than small localised or segmented media that have other priorities. Also, if it is national broadcast media that are allocated a radio frequency, more social commitment is usually anticipated since they are using public resources to run their businesses.

Similarly, journalism is traditionally viewed as an agent of truth and agents for exerting checks and balances on power in pursuit of good governance. So they are usually subject to more criticism if any ill-will, propaganda insinuations or unethical practice surface. In the Sorrayuth case, it was not his ethical standards in his role as a media professional that were at stake here, but his business malpractice which was seen to have influenced his role as an "opinion leader" and "social idol" of society.

Yet, when it comes to complaints, drama series or the highly popular Thai lakorn usually take centre stage both through informal channels like online social media and the complaints-handling process at the national regulator -- the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC). According to an official in charge of this process at the NBTC, a significant number of complaints in the past year had to do with digital broadcast operators giving the wrong content ratings to their programmes.

TV news host Sorrayuth Suthassanachinda arrives at the Criminal Court earlier this month to hear a ruling on an advertising revenue dispute case in which the court sentenced him to 13 years and four months in jail. Whether the media is willing to behave ethically without social and political pressure is an open question.Pattanapong Hirunard

In October 2013, the NBTC passed a regulation on content ratings which requires that all television station operators rate their programmes in accordance with the guidelines given and that the broadcast time correspond with the ratings given. The main intent behind the regulation is to protect minors from viewing content that does not befit their age or development.

The recurring problem found was that the G rating, or General, tends to be allocated to content that actually goes far beyond that description, whether in terms of language, sex, and violence.

The main reason? Because with a G rating, the programme can be aired at any time of day, making it highly amenable as potential reruns during daytime. If assigned more targeted ratings like PG-13 and PG-18 which are appropriate for viewers older than 13 and 18 respectively, the programmes would be restricted to a certain airtime -- between 8.30 pm and 5 am and between 10.00 pm and 5 am -- in that order. This would make it harder for stations to market the programmes to advertisers and ad agencies.

To give but some examples of the cases that were brought to the NBTC's attention, last year a series called Ching Rak Hak Sawat (Struggle for Love) from Channel 8 showed a scene of a group rape but was rated G. Meanwhile, a drama from another digital TV station, GMM Channel, under the famous "Club Friday" series, showed a scene in which a sexual threesome was attempted and an explicit conversation on the topic took place among the would-be partners.

Another series called Reun Roi Rak (House of 100 Love Affairs) was also found to have an inappropriate rating. This one was also rated G although there was a steamy sex scene showing kissing, fondling, and suggested sexual intercourse.

Most recently, the highly popular ghost series Kamlai Mas (Golden Bracelet) aired on primetime Channel 3 was also called out due to a complaint about the opening scene in which the heroine was beaten with her hand cut off, with much blood spilled, and gore.

Channel 3 admitted that it hires production houses to produce the lakorn and they are instructed to rate everything G so the programmes could be used for reruns in the future.

But the producers' main task is to turn the storyline into visual pictures without altering the original story. The result? The ratings do not reflect the actual images in the lakorn.

While this example of content rating may sound trivial, it actually is very telling about the situation facing the media industry. Digital TV stations are up against it, paying extraordinary high licence fees to the NBTC among other costs, so they have to be calculating.

The economics of media content production is simple. Produce once and use it multiple times to generate the highest revenue. But the content rating regulation stands in the way of accumulating that income.

What's next? The current political situation places many restrictions on TV stations too and many operators feel they are left with fewer tricks to woo consumers other than sex and violence.

All in all, the media are no saints. But can we expect more from them, particularly in terms of showing integrity towards their audience?

Despite the difficult situation they find themselves in, the media would still have to be accountable to the public, as much as they are beholden to the owners of the capital and political power that control them.

Pirongrong Ramasoota teaches and researches on media, communication, and society at the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University.

Pirongrong Ramasoota

Chulalongkorn University Professor

Pirongrong Ramasoota, PhD, is a professor of communication at Chulalongkorn University and a senior research fellow at LIRNEasia

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