As a buyer for a private firm, Ms Chang (張) likes to watch television to keep up with the latest consumer news. Once in a while, she comes across infomercials when switching channels.
“At first you think you are getting some useful information on health from experts or doctors,” she said, commenting on the content of the infomercials. “Later on you find out they were all promoting only one product. It makes you wonder if you were watching a program or a commercial.”
This confusion is shared by millions of other television viewers around the nation. Numerous complaints from both audience members and Department of Health officials over the exaggerated content of infomercials has also come to the attention of the National Communications Commission (NCC).
The media watchdog has fined a few television stations over the past five years for infringing Article 19 of the Satellite Broadcasting Act (衛星廣播電視法), which states that programs should be distinguishable from advertisements. The problems with infomercials drew a lot of public attention last year after ERA TV’s variety channel (年代綜合台) failed to secure the renewal of its operating license from the commission after repeated infractions of Article 19.
Less than a month after ERA’s variety channel was taken off the air, the commission fined three more satellite television channels NT$1 million (US$34,447) for the same violation. The commission’s ruling over ERA’s TV variety channel, however, drew a range of reactions from the public.
While the commission reported that it had received hundreds of e-mails from viewers praising it for such decisive action, lawmakers from both the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) and the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) accused the commission of clamping down on freedom of speech, with some even questioning if the ERA was fairly and adequately warned about its transgressions before its license was invalidated.
Nonetheless, the plight of ERA TV’s variety channel apparently sent a warning message to more than 60 television channels scheduled to seek the renewal of their licenses this year. According to the commission, many of them have voluntarily stopped airing infomercials or reduced the broadcasts to between 30 minutes to an hour per day this year.
Luo Shih-hung (羅世宏), a professor at National Chung Cheng University, said channel operators reacted strongly to the commission’s ERA TV ruling because television stations had always previously been able to renew their licenses.
“In the past, the government and the television stations were on good terms because they knew they could both benefit from having such a close relationship,” Luo said. “So once the station received its license, it could potentially operate for 10,000 years without having to worry about losing its license. Regulations governing license renewal or the suspension of broadcasts have been in place for a long time, but the GIO [Government Information Office] almost never enforced them.”
Weber Lai (賴祥蔚), head of the Department of Radio and Television and the Graduate School of Applied Media Arts at the National Taiwan University of the Arts, said the ruling was meant to show what the commission would do to those who repeatedly crossed the line.
“The television channels never had to feel the pain of paying fines because both the production costs of the infomercials and the possible penalties from the NCC were all been taken care of by the advertisers,” Lai said. “It [ERA] underestimated the consequences and thought it could settle the matter by paying the fines again.”