‘Embrace new media because it’s free’

Belmont Lay
The Flipside

White noise on TV. (Photo courtesy of Hoong Wei Long)

In a new column called "The Flip Side", local blogger Belmont Lay lets loose on local politics, culture and society in his weekly musings. To be taken with a pinch of salt and with parental permission advised. In his latest post, he talks about TV and new media.

The other Sunday, I was featured on a Channel 5 current affairs show called Singapore Talking.

I know you missed the programme because I missed it, too.

And you know why? Yes, that's right. No one actually watches TV these days anymore.

And the biggest irony? The topic for that week was "Traditional Media vs. Alternative Media".

Mainstream media opportunities

However, I'm not here to boo boo traditional media. Well, not completely.

I believe the world of television is a great institution that has given us some good things.

On top of the many other mediocre and forgettable things, of course.

But off the top of my head, the first such good thing I can think of is Fiona Xie.

Yes, she's the one with the preposterously large, round and enticing pair of eyes.

You see, mainstream media is where homegrown talent can be brought to the forefront, nurtured and groomed.

It is a legitimate platform where professionals cut their teeth and it spawns other media-related industries that provide employment opportunities.

Pray tell, if the traditional mainstream television scene were to collapse overnight taking along with it the advertising and public relations sectors, where on earth will Arts graduates from the National University of Singapore go?

Nowhere, precisely.

Expensive institution

But herein lies the greatest problem: To sustain any great traditional institution is an expensive business.

When I did some research for this article -- which is basically a three-minute Google search, my eyes exploded.

Do you know how much money has been collected annually from television licence fees from households in Singapore?

It is a vulgar sum, I warn you.

Ok, here goes: $132.5 million was collected by the Media Development Authority in 2009 alone.

This money is used to fund the making of wholesome programmes with upright values aligned to our national agenda for free-to-air-channels. It has been an ongoing practice since 1963.

However, rather thankfully, television license fees were scrapped in February 2011.

Our Finance Minister, Tharman Shanmugaratnam, sensibly said last year that the fee is losing its relevance as media convergence is making people watch programmes on Internet devices besides television.

But I guess the other half of the unspoken truth is that a lot of people have stopped watching TV altogether.

And don't be suckered: when the government says that they will fund the making of free-to-air content from now on since they have abolished television licence fees, what they mean is that the taxpayers are ultimately still going to foot the bill.

So, one way or another, the people will still have to pay. Even if it is for something they are not watching.

Free alternative media content

And this brings me nicely to my next point.

The rise of alternative media is something that is worth championing.

And you know why?

Yes, alternative media platforms offer consumers free stuff or at least give them the option to choose what to pay for. And all these stuff don't pretend to be wholesome, upright or infused with national values.

The best part is that it is increasingly giving people the option to not consume anything remotely boring, mediocre and inconvenient.

In fact, because alternative media is so new, independent and haphazard, it has a tendency to throw up the most random content.

Check out this video of a sports reporter being hit in the head with a soccer ball.

Or this one showing a baby penguin being tickled.

And this unprecedented explosion of content quantity is changing people's mindsets about media quality in general.

Now, paying for anything will result in the expectation of better content.

Even the newspaper business shares the same concerns.

Because nobody wants to pay to read a national newspaper that only contains truth and accuracy, or the lack of, printed in black fonts on white paper.

Readers want to see bright colours, blazing headlines, compelling photos and mind-boggling infographics.

So that's where all that money is going. Paying media people to produce the bright and colourful things professionally.

The same rule applies to free-to-air programmes.

What the public is essentially paying for quite often are the salaries of perky and nubile women to appear in programmes so that viewers wouldn't be tempted to turn the TV off just yet.

Perks of alternative media

But we are only arriving at the best part yet.

Owing to a self-selection process, anybody these days with a bit of time, determination and street smarts can cast themselves as a host, actor, reporter or take on any of those mainstream media roles of yesteryear.

This self-selection process has its perks and favours alternative media.

Even if one were to possess the attractiveness of a wheelbarrow with the sexual appeal of a fork lift truck, things will still be OK.

Because really, since alternative media content is produced cheaply and available for free, people consuming it aren't expected to have grievances.

If anyone does, he or she is just being silly. They can always go to YouTube to watch something else.

That said, alternative media can still have high production values, largely due to the fact that alternative media is where one can break away from the past and forge ahead to try something new and different.

It is where an alternative media practitioner is able to experiment and mash things up without feeling like it's a betrayal to the establishment.

And that's why you are reading this column on Yahoo! News.

You didn't pay a cent for it.

But it is filled with nuggets of free facts, free opinion and free theorising.

Sure, you might have paid for your Internet connection, but rest assured, that money is going to Internet Service Providers.

If you didn't like what I had just written, that's fine. Just get back to watching the free video of a dog riding a bicycle.

Belmont Lay is one of the editors of New Nation, an online publication focused on Singapore. As the citizen online who comments on issues, he doesn't suffer from a chronic persecution complex.