By Chen Ping-hung 陳炳宏
Thursday, Apr 08, 2010, Page 8
A number of Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) legislators, Chen Ken-te (陳根德) among them, recently proposed an amendment to the Broadcasting and Television Act (廣播電視法) that stipulates broadcasting platforms “for public viewing” should have the right to air programs produced by the Public Television Service (PTS) and other privately run terrestrial TV stations free of charge. However, the proposal was opposed by the National Communications Commission (NCC) and several terrestrial TV station operators.
It’s not every day that you see legislators in Taiwan trying to establish laws in the public interest, rather than to benefit their own party, big business or themselves. I was actually quite moved when I heard that they were fighting for the TV viewing rights of the public.
What a pity, then, that this proposal for a “must-carry” clause received so little support. My disappointment is only tempered by the hope that legislators will continue to push for similar must-carry clauses in future.
There are probably a lot of readers who don’t really know what is meant by “must-carry” legislation. It is perhaps easier to understand the concept if we turn it on its head and ask what would happen if the government were to exempt cable networks from having to air terrestrial TV stations.
If this happened, then households that watch TV via a cable network would no longer have access to terrestrial TV stations such as Taiwan TV (TTV), China TV (CTV), Chinese Television System (CTS), Formosa TV (FTV) and PTS, as they currently do.
Terrestrial TV must-carry regulations stipulate that cable TV operators are required by law to air all the programs of at least the five currently active terrestrial TV stations for customers who access TV through a cable TV network.
The significance, then, of having a must-carry clause like this is that it guarantees everyone with a television set in Taiwan receives, free of charge, the five current terrestrial TV stations.
The must-carry clause is extremely important for many reasons, and suspicions that legislators are in fact looking out for Chunghwa Telecom’s MOD, is not of particular relevance to this argument. What is relevant is the use of terrestrial TV frequencies. These are public property and the government is supposed to administer them in the public interest.
In the past, the five terrestrial TV stations were allowed to use these frequencies to air programs for the public, at considerable benefit to the station operators. It was therefore only natural that these broadcasts were free of charge.
There is now a fear that commercially run terrestrial TV stations broadcasting their programs over the publicly owned airwaves may charge viewers.
This would be like allowing a friend to use a plot of land you own to grow vegetables, only for him to turn around and charge you for them. If it comes to this, we need to ask whether the government is managing the terrestrial TV frequencies on our behalf or if they are in bed with the TV station operators.
Some say that after the roll-out of digital TV we will have more frequencies than we know what to do with, and viewers are unlikely to miss a few terrestrial TV stations. But these terrestrial channels belong to the public, so by what logic are we to be charged for access to them?
If the number of terrestrial channels goes up from five to 15 after the introduction of a digital service and these are all included in a must-carry clause, private cable TV operators may well complain, with some justification, that they are being forced to allocate far too much of their channel space to the terrestrial channels.
The government should ensure that the three current terrestrial TV stations, namely TTV, CTV and FTV (which will be the main channels after we go digital) must be included in a must-carry clause, in addition to all of the channels provided by the PTS Group.
The public must not be refused access to terrestrial TV stations, because to do so would be to force taxpayers to pay for frequencies that they already own after the advent of digitization. Otherwise, we could just let the government run the terrestrial TV frequencies and the satellite stations operate their own frequencies.
Legislators must continue submitting their must-carry proposals, as should everyone who wants to continue viewing terrestrial TV stations free of charge.
Chen Ping-hung is a professor at National Taiwan Normal University’s graduate institute of mass communication.
TRANSLATED BY PAUL COOPER