The Ministry of Transportation and Communications recently announced that it would auction up to five new terrestrial television licenses. While many people rubbed their hands in anticipation following the announcement, others worried about the future of the digital television industry. We must ask ourselves if Taiwan needs more terrestrial TV stations.
Before considering how to issue these licenses, the ministry should first consider whose needs it is meeting by doing so, and to what purpose. Is it because media operators need more stations to improve their content? Or could it be that advertisers want more channels for marketing?
I think it is none of these possibilities. Taiwan has more than 200 terrestrial and satellite TV stations. That should be enough. Over the past 10 years, total spending on TV advertising has dropped from NT$35 billion (US$1.1 billion) in 1998 to NT$18 billion last year. TV stations are having a hard time finding advertisters. It is clear that the planned addition of licenses stems from neither a need to increase the number of media operators nor a need for more advertising channels.
A release of new terrestrial television licenses should be based on the needs of viewers nationwide and on public expectations of the development of televised media. Taiwan does not lack TV stations that focus on viewer ratings and place profits above all else; what it lacks is public service programming and TV stations that fulfill their media function. It also lacks qualitative and innovative programming that avoids cheap or vulgar content.
The ministry should put terrestrial channels to their most effective use by giving priority to appointing or reserving terrestrial frequencies for TV stations performing public services, such as public television or Aboriginal television. Making terrestrial television the sole domain of commercial operators will only stifle the public character of terrestrial frequencies.
Healthy public media services are needed to make up for the damage to society caused by commercial television and balance the excessive commercial leanings of the television market.
The next issue is how to license the frequencies. After the ministry auctioned off 3G mobile licenses in 2002, it wanted to use the same method to sell terrestrial frequencies. It is worth noting, however, that terrestrial television frequencies are fundamentally different from mobile telephone frequencies, because mobile frequencies are intended purely for commercial use and the purpose for selling them is transparent, whereas terrestrial television frequencies have several possible uses: They can be for commercial or for public use, and they can be run as for-profit or not-for-profit businesses. This means that auctions should not be the only considered means of releasing these frequencies.
Once the government has policies in place for releasing frequencies intended for different uses, those intended for commercial use could be sold through an auction procedure, but frequencies intended for public services could instead go through a review process or be directly allotted to an operator. Different methods should be adopted to issue licenses depending on their use. The government must avoid the view that such licenses are only a means to increase its revenue.