Fri, May 16, 2003 - Page 17 News List

When the going gets tough, stay inside

SARS is keeping people off the streets, away from entertainments and glued to their TVs

By David Frazier  /  STAFF REPORTER

Ya-wen (雅雯) is in her early 20s and works at a downtown Taipei coffee shop, where she wears a surgical mask all day long as she serves hundreds of people. Is she scared of SARS?

"Yes!"

Outside of work, is she going out less?

"Yes! And when I do, it's to places without many people."

So what's she doing instead?

"Staying home and watching TV!"

By now it's clear that SARS has us changing our habits. We are wiping our hands compulsively with disinfectants, opening doors with our elbows and punching elevator buttons with our house keys. When someone coughs on the bus or the MRT, we jerk our heads in panic. And even though we live in one of the world's denser cities, we are afraid of large crowds. So more and more, we are looking for every chance we have to stay home.

But as entertainment moves into the living room, the mass entertainment industry is taking a hit. The summer's first Hollywood blockbuster, X-Men2,expected to earn NT$50 million in its first two weeks, but only got NT$12 million. Earlier this week at an 8pm showing of the film at Taipei's largest cinema, the Ambassador Theatre, there was only one person in the audience (and it wasn't me. There's no way I'd be caught dead in a mass contagion zone like that). For at least a week, Taipei's best known cinema complex, Warner Village, has been unwilling to comment about its business.

Major performance venues like the National Theatre and National Concert Hall have also seen a rash of cancellations ? at least 11 for May and June ? and virtually all entertainment forms that play to live crowds are flagging.

Market research shows that people are staying home, instead of going out, and inundating themselves with SARS news coverage.

"News viewing has increased from January and February to March and April," said Desmond Wang of AC Nielsen, Taiwan, a ratings agency.

For the first two weeks of May, AC Nielsen ratings show the average viewing of Taiwan's six major news channels has jumped almost 30% compared to January. The current rate is even higher than during March, which also saw high ratings during the buildup to America's war on Iraq.

The Blockbuster video rental chain also reports that business is up and that viewing tastes are topical ? very topical.

"During the War on Iraq, people were renting more war movies, like Saving Private Ryan and U-571. Since SARS, people have been renting films where people fight disease, like Outbreak with Dustin Hoffman," said Lee Jian-hsue (李建學), Blockbuster's marketing director.

A Hollywood release of 1995,

Outbreak, features Hoffman as an infectious diseases expert called in to study a new illness in Zaire. The virus is deadly enough to potentially wipe out an entire country in only a few weeks if not contained and has has made its way to a small town in California. There Hoffman's character engages in a moral battle with an army general that would prefer to kill everyone in the community as the only way to save the world.

"I think people are interested in seeing how these medical problems are solved in movies," Lee said. "Video rental trends move in step with social fashion."

Rental growth has taken place on weekends, which Lee says are usually busy, but especially on weekdays after 7pm. He was unable to quantify the growth however, saying only "it's better by more than a little."

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