The Straits Times: MediaCorp Channel 5's viewership on the decline

By Boon Chan, 31 March 2012

YouTube snippets of MediaCorp Channel 5 comedy series The Noose often receive hundreds of thousands of views and are widely circulated.

The show spoofs current affairs and news developments in Singapore using a cast that adopts the melange of accents heard locally. Singaporeans love it because its take on topical issues has zings.

Researcher Wang Zijing, 40, said: "Not all segments are funny but there are gems such as the spoof of the maid carrying the NS (National Service) boy's full-pack. Of course, Michelle Chong is a hoot with her mastery of accents."

On average, more than 300,000 viewers tune in weekly to Channel 5 for a dose of Chong and company's shenanigans. The success of the show masks a deep problem on Channel 5: It is losing viewers by the lorryloads. According to a survey by data company Nielsen, the daily viewership figure for Channel 5 decreased from 1.038 million, in 2010, to 998,000, last year. This is a drop of 3.8 per cent. In 2006 and 2007, the number was 1.29 million and 1.075 million.

It might not look like a steep decline but compared to Mandarin counterpart Channel 8's viewership growth from 1.859 million to 1.911 million in the same time frame, the situation for Singapore's main English-language TV channel seems dismal. In 2006 and 2007, the figure for Channel 8 was 1.942 million and 1.808 million.

There are two main reasons for Channel 5's plight, according to TV viewers Life! spoke to: the lack of strong original content and the appalling quality of acquired programmes, which largely comprise old seasons of American drama series, movie reruns and cheesy variety shows such as amateur video compilations.

When the current fifth season of The Noose ends on Tuesday, no quality programme with a strong local flavour and identity has been announced to take its place.

If a foreigner who is new to Singapore were to watch MediaCorp's Channel 5 for a taste of the country, he would not get any good idea from its line-up. MediaCorp receives government funding.

Lawyer Adrian Kwong, 37, calls the channel "practically irrelevant" while 21-year-old marketing executive Edward Cheang is turned off by the "very boring" programming.

One reason for the decrease in Channel 5's viewership numbers could be due to the fact that there are simply more platforms available to access content nowadays.

As at the end of last year, there were 545,000 subscribers to StarHub's pay TV service and 353,000 subscribers to SingTel's mio TV.

And teacher Tan Siang Yu, 41, who bought an iPad last year says: "It really changed my world." He now watches television programmes "much less". Instead, he watches YouTube clips recommended by friends.

Student Thanusha Raj, 20, declared: "Television is not completely dead, but I definitely watch less of it now, compared to about five years ago." Her viewing diet now includes the battle-of-the-sexes show Chick Vs. Dick on online video network clicknetwork. tv.

One common gripe about the English-language channel's line-up is that the shows aired are often old and repeated too often. For example, the movie offering on March 14 at 10pm was the action thriller Die Hard 2, a 1990 flick that had been previously aired. It prompted administrator Goh Ying Wei, 38, to remark: "It seems like they just pick something blindly to play to fill time." Older movies aired this month include Finding Nemo (2003), Anaconda 3 (2008) and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (1990).

Ms Joy Olby-Tan, vice-president of programming for Channel 5, says that movies are rescheduled "within a reasonable timeframe or with a special theme". She adds: "These movies will also appeal to viewers who simply wish to enjoy their favourites again. Such a strategy has proven to work as can be attested by the viewership information and feedback we get."

When it comes to American drama series on the channel, two issues annoy viewers: censorship and delayed broadcast.

Mr Kwong said that the drama Californication, about a troubled novelist and his sexual escapades, was being censored even on pay TV, which probably meant that it would be even more heavily censored on a free-to-air channel. The first season of Californication premiered on Channel 5 in April 2010. At the same time, season three was airing on the cable channel FX.

In its programme code for free-to-air television, the Media Development Authority notes that "television reaches almost all homes and is easily accessible to all people, including the young". As a result, free-to-air programmes can go up only to a PG13 rating, while pay TV's content rating limit is M18.

Furthermore, by the time an American series airs on Channel 5, it could be several seasons later than pay TV. Channel 5 is currently airing season 2 of the fantasy series The Vampire Diaries and season 4 of the comedy How I Met Your Mother. Season 3 of Diaries is available on mio TV's Season Pass and season 7 of Mother is available on Star World (StarHub Channel 501).

Given the strong competition and deeper pockets of its cable rivals when it comes to acquiring top content fresh off the US airwaves, Channel 5 can hope only to cherry-pick the most popular foreign shows to cater to the segment of the population with no access to pay TV or the Internet.

Based on seven days of programming from March 1 to 7, less than a quarter of the programming consisted of original material. That included 121/2 hours of the weekday news magazine show AM Live! as well as reruns of local dramas such as Growing Up (1996-2001) and the teen series Light Years (2004-2005).

The rest were foreign content such as past seasons of US dramas (Fringe season 2), movie reruns (1994's True Lies), daytime variety shows (The Ellen DeGeneres Show, The Martha Stewart Show), obscure reality shows (Unbeatable Banzuke, Minute To Win It) and even a "paid presentation" (Great Ideas From JML).

Senior lecturer Jacqueline Tan-Pereira, who teaches at Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Film & Media Studies, says: "The challenge for Channel 5 is to gain viewership with the younger generation. If their programmes are not as interesting or as fun as those on the Internet, they would not get this younger generation watching them."

In a media environment saturated with entertainment options, clearly one way for Channel 5 to remain relevant is to produce better original shows than the likes of long-running lowbrow sitcom Police & Thief (2004-2010) and action drama Point Of Entry, which concluded its second season yesterday.

Viewers who do not like such shows take issue with everything from the plots to the mangling of the English language.

Marketing executive Mr Cheang says that the constant shaking of the camera on Point Of Entry "gives me trauma and nausea".

Mr Wang says of the show, which is about a special operations team with the Immigrations & Checkpoints Authority: "It's so bad that it's funny, like VR Man." VR Man was a 1998 superhero drama produced by the then-Television Corporation of Singapore that was unanimously panned.

It is not all bad news for the channel, though. Series such as The Noose, legal drama The Pupil and nostalgia drama Fighting Spiders found favour with some viewers. The Pupil aired its second and most recent season last year and Fighting Spiders have run two seasons so far, in 2009 and 2010.

Indeed, The Noose was often mentioned as an example of a good show on Channel 5.

The debut of its current season, season 5, ranked No. 3 among long-running drama and variety series on Channel 5 last year with 307,000 viewers. MediaCorp says this is comparable to the last four seasons.

However, the full extent of the show's popularity is not reflected in the Channel 5 figures.

University student Zeinab Saiwalla, 24, is studying in New York but would still watch clips on the show when her friends post them on Facebook. And on MediaCorp's XinMSN website, The Noose's season 5 debut has garnered more than 109,000 views.

Assistant professor Liew Kai Khiun is with Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information's Division of Broadcast & Cinema Studies.

He observes: "One of the outstanding characteristics of Channel 5 is its reflection of Singapore's multicultural and linguistic society. From Under One Roof in the 1990s to the recent season of The Pupil, there are conscious efforts of the English language local dramas in Channel 5 to represent Singapore's ethnic minorities more meaningfully."

Fighting Spiders, which is set in 1960s Singapore, offers Ms Raj a look into a past her parents have told her about. "I would watch the show with my mum and she would go 'I used to do these things when I was younger'." Her parents grew up in a kampung and would play games with the neighbours such as five stones, chatek and catching insects and spiders for competitions.

The challenge, obviously, is for Channel 5 to step up its production of original shows.

As assistant professor Liew puts it: "If the media industry and government are keen to nurture local content, they should perhaps consider revamping this station as a platform for predominantly home-grown productions in the English language."

MediaCorp has in fact announced earlier this month that it will set up a studio operation housing all television production units in the four languages of English, Mandarin, Malay and Tamil. However, as the organisational and management changes are taking place next month, it could not say what this means in terms of original programming for Channel 5.

It is not just a question of quantity but also quality, considering the sheer scope of what is available beyond the confines of Channel 5.

Mr Cheang says that he rarely watches Channel 5 and usually watches content on sites such as Vimeo and YouTube. The good news for Channel 5? He also says that The Noose is "worth watching".

He adds: "I used to watch the local short films on okto and if there was a programme to showcase local directors and to promote the indie art scene, I would watch that, too."

MY REACTION: Yes, Channel 5 sucks, but that's not why it's losing viewers