For the past 30 years, my job was to censor Channel 5 shows. It was stressful.
Soft truths to keep Singapore from stalling.
[UPDATED on Monday, 11 November at 10:40m: Editor’s note: A previous version of this article inaccurately mentioned “the launch of STV12 in early 1984”. It should read as “Channel 12” instead of “STV12”. We have since corrected the article to reflect this.]
On Air – Untold Stories from Caldecott Hill is a collection of 51 essays about the history of television and radio in Singapore.
Compiled and published by Marshall Cavendish, the book features accounts from actors, producers, directors, journalists and many more about their time in the broadcasting industry throughout Singapore’s history.
Here, we reproduce an excerpt from the book, “TV Censorship: Work-in-Progress”, by David Christie, about his experience in working as a censor for the Singapore Broadcasting Corporation and Mediacorp.
Christie currently manages Mediacorp’s Content Standards team which oversees programme compliance requirements for English Free-To-Air TV Channels, and Toggle.
On Air can be purchased here.
By David Christie
Censorship is a serious job
The censorship standards of 1983 were still relatively conservative, and the importance of our responsibilities were reinforced when we had a private audience with then Minister for Culture, Mr S Dhanabalan – whose visit happened just a week of my joining the team.
Television programmes had a strong and lasting impact on the lives of people, and our private audience with the Minister helped establish, among other things, the treatment of subplots in family entertainment dramas and comedy programmes.
To meet the Minister in person so soon after joining the organisation was a very special privilege, indeed.
Programmes must be filtered for the local context
Practically all programmes on Channel 5 were acquired content.
The values and culture of the West sometimes did not mesh with our local sensitivities – hence the need to be extra vigilant on the suitability of the subtle themes in our programmes that typically target a mass audience, particularly when children may be watching.
Even to this day, programmes that also target the young continue to be subjected to very thorough scrutiny to ensure it is conducive for an impressionable audience.
The censors were guided by a Censorship Code document that was derived from policies and programming guidelines from well-established broadcasters such as the BBC.
The document was very thorough, and even listed out gangland weapons that should not be featured in our programmes.
There was also a proscribed song list – many of which had drug-laced lyrics, including some that deployed backward masking and embody subtle satanic messages.
The periodic updates and refinements to the Censorship Code document was done by Sandra Buenaventura (Head of Programme Acquisition & Scheduling Unit) and Amy Tsang (Head of Programme Acquisition Unit) with input from the censors, until the formation of the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) in October 1994.
Guidelines used to be confidential
The early SBC-issued Code was in a red file, and marked “Confidential”, which is in stark contrast to the current Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) compliance codes that are readily available online for public reading on the various broadcast guidelines.
As part of our censorship growth and development, annual meetings were held with our counterparts at the Board of Film Censors (BFC), the official arm of the Ministry that vetted all films and video tapes prior to release that was not meant for television broadcast.
Headed by Mr Chiou Chee Pern, and subsequently by Mr Rama Meyyappan, the annual visits were an eye-opener to the challenges that our colleagues at the BFC faced.
The role of BFC Chairman was later assumed by Ms Amy Chua, a well-respected current affairs producer during the SBC years.
To ensure that our programming resonated well with the expectations and sensitivities of the community at large, the Programme Advisory Council (PAC) and the Film Advisory Panel (FAP) were formed, and Amy Tsang was the designated Secretary of the PAC, with support from the censors and programmers who also attended the meetings.
Controversial and sensitive programmes were reviewed on a case-by-case basis
The FAP members were invited to SBC to view and assess more controversial and sensitive programmes on a case-by-case basis with a censor sitting in for the viewing.
This was in addition to the regular joint viewings and censorship discussions that we held on a weekly basis, aimed at aligning our own internal editorial decisions, and at the same time, develop the team as a whole on current social and political developments and concerns.
With the launch of STV12 in early 1984, the censorship team gained four new officers to support the content assessment for the new channel.
Programmes across all three television channels were viewed in entirety, a process that is still practiced and relevant to this day as it is the only form of content compliance assurance in our televised programmes.
Similarly, programmes deemed sensitive or thematically problematic were viewed and scrutinised ahead of actual content acquisition – a practice with obvious logistical benefits that remains applicable to this day.
The hardest programmes to censor were those with time-sensitive content
Particularly stressful were titles that were delivered to us, either via satellite or freight, with a very short turnaround time for broadcast.
These include time-sensitive topical content with current affairs interest like 60 Minutes from CBS and BBC’s Panorama, as well as the sometimes controversial music concerts – such as the very memorable “Madonna: Blonde Ambition Tour Concert”, which left us walking a tight rope before and after the programme broadcast due to the inherent controversies associated with Madonna.
Making the most accurate content assessment decisions that abide with Code sensitivities, and yet at the same time, ensure that the programme can be delivered for playout in time for the day’s publicised broadcast posed untold challenges then, as they sometimes still do even today!
As nerve-wrecking as it was, the legacy of having the programme ready in time for broadcast always prevailed.
In the 90s, SBC’s censors trained the censors for cable television
The 90s was an era of change.
Restricted or R-rated movies were introduced in the cinemas for the first time in July 1991, and then refined to become restricted artistic R(A) in September that same year following strong public feedback.
Also in that month, SBC launched Singapore Cable Vision (SCV), the first pay-per-view subscription television service in Singapore.
SCV’s News Vision began in April 1992, and Variety Vision and Movie Vision followed in June 1992, the latter featuring movie titles from Time Warner’s Home Box Office (HBO).
The expertise of the Channel 5 censors were actively sought in vetting the HBO movie titles on a part-time basis.
In addition, we invested a considerable amount of resources and time in training SCV’s new censors to acquire the appropriate skills to oversee the content compliance of SCV programmes under their care.
Training SCV’s new team of censors was regarded as our “national service” to the industry, and was a process we took great pride in carrying out.
SBC evolved into TCS, RCS and STV12 in 1994, 24-hour broadcasting was introduced on Channel 5 and Channel 8, and more Cable television operators began their invasion by setting up businesses here.
Some of our most capable colleagues left Caldecott Hill to make their mark with the competition, and many did exceptionally well, including our current CEO, Ms Tham Loke Kheng, who has brought back to Mediacorp her wide-ranging regional media experience to guide the company in its next wave of innovation and transformation in this very dynamic media broadcast landscape.
There was a panic about broadcast systems at the turn of the millenium
In March 1999, we celebrated the launch of Channel NewsAsia (CNA) when it began its 24-hour news and current affairs broadcast. And as the millennium drew to a close, we found ourselves in a state of anxious frenzy.
Based on published reports, there were credible concerns that some of our critical digital broadcast systems may come to a sudden halt at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, a fate that was supposed to similarly impact other automated digital computer-based systems the world over, potentially bringing many critical operating systems to a grinding halt.
In preparation for the possibility of this impending crises, upon the recommendation of our Technologies colleagues, all our broadcast programmes were backed up with tape copies, and some of us stayed overnight in the office to monitor the situation.
Thankfully, the global hype on the matter turned out to be in vain. Life, as we knew it, continued without any incident and we peacefully crossed over into the year 2000.
In May 2001, SPH MediaWorks launched two alternative FTA-TV entertainment channels, Channel U and Channel i, with the latter closing in January 2005 on grounds of business viability concerns.
Channel U subsequently became part of the Mediacorp stable to provide complementary programming to Channel 8.
As brief as it was, this was the first time we, as a company, actually faced direct competition for eyeballs in the local FTA-TV platform scene, with many lessons learnt in the daunting process.
9/11 brought a new sense of urgency to censorship
On Sep. 11, 2001, the deadly series of coordinated attacks by the Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda against the United States instantly brought the whole world on edge with a heightened sense of sensitivity on matters of race and religion – impacting our own minority ethnic groups in Singapore.
This led to an immense re-scrutiny of all local and acquired programmes where race and religious portrayals were involved.
The effects of this harrowingly tragic incident deeply permeated and influenced our programming and censorship decisions.
It is a stark reminder of the inherent fragility of our own multiracial society, and the responsibilities we must assume in our televised content on FTA-TV.
Censorship must constantly evolve
Television censorship is always a work in progress profession – particularly for the highly-accessible FTA-TV and radio broadcast environment.
While we are largely guided by the periodically updated IMDA compliance codes for television, in actuality, the decisions we abided by closely resonated with the social comforts and sensitivities of the day.
Contentious issues like race and religion aside, sexual orientation is widely tipped to be the next big challenge for our society and the media at large as we continue the process of making sound assessments on our acquired and locally-produced content for broadcast.
Besides taking charge of the content standards compliance for all English programme broadcasts on Mediacorp FTA-TV channels for both acquired and local productions, my talented team also oversees the compliance of acquired content on Channel NewsAsia, as well as the overall programme adherence to the Subscription and Video-on-Demand (VOD) Codes for Toggle – Mediacorp’s online platform that also houses a comprehensive library of our earlier cherished productions.
As Mediacorp’s days at Caldecott Hill slowly drew to a close, for technical reasons, my team and I were among the last batch of 50 to vacate the once iconic broadcasting venue.
At the end of April 2017, we bid our final farewell to Caldecott Hill, and collectively took away with us the fond memories and special moments intrinsically linked with our time there.
Personally, my time at Caldecott Hill seemed to have slipped by ever too quickly.
Having grown up at Caldecott Hill, I must acknowledge how truly blessed I’ve been through the years for the tremendous opportunities that came my way, and particularly, to have known and worked with some of the best in the television and radio business – some of whom are still my esteemed colleagues at the spanking new high-tech Mediacorp Campus on Stars Avenue.
As they always say in our broadcast business: “The show must go on!”
I know it surely will.
Top photo by Calvin Teo, via Wikipedia