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When Indonesia’s television industry opened up four years ago, more media freedom and wider information access were supposed to be among the benefits.

But even though Indonesians now have nine channels to choose from, media experts here say that the kind of shows and programs the stations are offering remain essentially the same.

That is really bad news, many here say. After all, during the three-decade rule of Indonesian strongman Suharto, the usual television fare consisted mostly of local and imported soap operas, variety shows and news that came straight from the government propaganda machine.

Some take a bit of comfort in the fact that since Suharto was forced to step down in 1998, at least the government no longer tries to control the news. But then, they say, the television stations themselves seem to have a hard time kicking the old habit of sticking to the official line when reporting events.

“New TV stations present news packages similar to the old ones,” says Dedy Djamaluddin Malik, chair of the High School of Communication (Stikom) in Bandung.

“The difference is only in duration of camera angle,” he says. “They also present the same type of entertainment packages — telenovela, soap operas or Indian movies.”

It has not helped that the stations are so far all based here — from state-owned TVRI, to the country’s first commercial station, RCTI, to subsequent players SCTV, ANTeve, Indosiar and TPI, and finally to newcomers Metro TV, Trans TV and Lateve.

According to media specialist Dr. Philip Kitley of the Southern Queensland University in Australia, such a set-up is not advantageous to regional developments in Indonesia and may even create an imbalance in information.

Local television producer Yanto Sugiarto echoes these sentiments. He says, “If all TV stations are based in Jakarta, then local traditions and genius will not get access to promotion and so they will not grow well.”

“For a diverse nation like Indonesia, this centralism in information is not good,” he adds. “More TV stations should mean more opportunities for local tradition to grow so that audiences have more choices to watch.”

Some observers, though, say that perhaps the industry just needs some time to adjust and begin to innovate.

But others are less optimistic, arguing that an industry that puts business concerns first is unlikely to veer away from programs and formats that have proven to be money-earners — even if these are trite and tired.

Malik himself notes that sheer economics and existing infrastructure are among the major reasons why the stations have stayed put in the capital.

“Big advertisement stakes are in Jakarta,” he says. “Skilled human resources are in Jakarta and good infrastructure is in Jakarta. Establishing a TV station in the regions will be costly and facing gloomy prospect.”

Observes Malik: “When it comes to business, social development is a peripheral aspect.”

To be sure, many of the stations have been raking in profits despite a prolonged recession. For instance, RCTI, formerly owned in part by Bambang Trihatmojo, a son of Suharto, had a gross income of $ 424.5 million from 1996 to 2000.

Indosiar, meanwhile, grossed $ 334 million during the same period, getting 1.33 trillion rupiah worth of advertising in 2000 alone.

SCTV earned $ 348 million from 1996 to 2000 while TPI posted a total gross income of $ 236 million.

Such big figures have apparently helped attract more companies to try their luck in broadcasting, and in television in particular. According to industry insiders, there will be at least two more new players in the coming months — Global TV and TV-7.

But there has been a bit of good news, say experts: the involvement of print media companies in television.

For example, Metro TV, which is owned by the press firm Media Indonesia, has been the first to offer news in Mandarin. Insiders also expect the current industry infant, Lateve, owned by the print media Kompas Group, to come up with innovative shows.

In addition, many are waiting for the Jawa Pos Group to establish its own television station, which it plans to set up in Riau island. The Jawa Pos station’s broadcasting area will cover western Sumatra and Malaysia.

Kitley says of the entry of print organizations into television: “This is an innovation in the media business and will create a convergence between printed media and audio visual media.”

Industry insiders like Sugiarto, meanwhile, hope that others will take a cue from the Jawa Pos Group and consider the regions as bases for a change.

Sugiarto also suggests that local governments, which have been given greater autonomy by Jakarta, start encouraging media firms in their areas to look into television or at least press existing stations to establish strong regional bureaus.


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