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Taiwan's Next Media Group Sale Sparks Censorship Fears

  • Ralph Jennings

Next Media web site front page, November 27, 2012.

Next Media web site front page, November 27, 2012.

Taiwan’s internationally-known Next Media group has become famous for its racy, animated graphics depicting events in the news. But now, there are worries about its future, as its owners contemplate a sale. The potential buyers’ business interests in China could reign-in the group’s creative and controversial content.

Instead of hearing television announcers read off high and low temperatures, viewers in Taiwan get their weather report through a young woman dancing to disco music. She’s among Next Television’s seven Weather Girls, one for every day of the week.

This racy, experimental approach to news has helped Next Media build a worldwide reputation. Next Media’s creative teams work quickly to produce animated parodies of headline grabbing news events. Targets have included Chinese trade practices, U.S. politicians, the global economic slowdown and even golf champion Tiger Woods’ marital problems.

But in Taiwan, the sometimes controversial content has drawn the attention of the island’s broadcast regulators. Now the owner, Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai, fears the government will not let him expand in Taiwan.

So, when a Taiwanese business consortium made an offer to buy Next Media’s daily newspaper, TV operation and two magazines in October, the company went into negotiations.

A key consortium member is Want Want Group Chairman Tsai Eng-meng. His group already controls several Taiwanese media seen as warm toward China, where Tsai has other business interests.

Chu Li, a media studies professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, says Taiwanese people have a right to worry about China’s influence in the proposed sale.

He says that China is not an open society, so that’s a reason to worry. He says, if China were an open country then and they intervened, you could scold and criticize them back, but this situation is not as clear.

The company’s Apple Daily newspaper, which has the widest daily circulation in Taiwan, and its colorful magazines have made money.

However, Next Media’s commercial director Mark Simon says the group lost $200 million on its Taiwan television station. But he says that government regulation is the core reason for deciding to sell.

“Along the way we frankly noticed the real problem was that they were looking to regulate us in every way, shape and form,” Simon explained.

Academics in Taiwan are telling the government they fear China is behind the sellers and that the island’s media should stay more politically diversified. Taiwan’s anti-China Democratic Progressive Party calls the proposed sale a national security issue.

Taiwanese media are among the freest in Asia, an outgrowth of the island’s democracy, while China tightly restricts the content of news reports. Taiwanese journalists say China now plants pro-Beijing stories in Taiwanese media to win favor with the island’s public and that it wants more influence.

China has claimed self-ruled Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s. Beijing seeks peaceful reunification between the two sides by showing its advantages, such as a fast-growing economy, to people in Taiwan.

Beijing's mission stands in stark contrast to the irreverent and blunt style of Next Media’s most popular content. Its lifelike cartoon spoofs have drawn international media attention and tens of millions of viewers online for poking fun at serious topics.

Melvin Tan, a public television news anchor in Taipei, says Next Media will be remembered for blurring the lines between news and fiction.

“It’s a new kind of news media to a lot of people here in Taiwan, especially. For Apple Daily, which is the newspaper alternative, people read it as if it's 'a real newspaper' and they’re confused about what to believe and what not to believe. It also stimulates the industry and also gave people different choices,” Tan said.

For now, the proposed sale is being postponed after Taiwan’s financial regulator raised questions about the deal. But Next Media's Simon says an agreement could be reached within the week.
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