FOCUS: Hong Kong mogul banks on rainmaker in Taiwan TV market bid.
Long criticized for its tabloid publications, Hong Kong-based Next Media Ltd. is betting on one of Taiwan's most politically connected men to win over the island's ruling elite and break into its TV news market, company founder Jimmy Lai said in a recent interview.
King Pu-tsung, Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou's ''most trusted confidant'' and CEO of Next Media's two planned TV channels on the island, will give the company the credibility it needs -- especially with Ma's ruling Nationalist Party (KMT) -- for market inroads, Lai said.
Next Media is Hong Kong's largest-listed print media company and publisher of the Chinese-language Apple Daily newspapers and Next Magazine in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
With King, 53, on board, ''the KMT will perceive us as more legitimate, more credible and they will be more receptive,'' Lai said. ''In the media, your reputation -- how people perceive you -- is very important, especially in terms of advertising.''
Lai's CEO pick represents the Hong Kong media magnate's second try for a foothold in Taiwan's intensely competitive TV market.
In November, Next Media tried to buy out Taiwan's biggest media conglomerate, the China Times Group. A month of due diligence came to naught, Lai said, after rice-cracker manufacturer Want Want China Holdings Ltd. made a surprise bid for the group.
''We were five hours away from the deadline for signing the contract with the China Times,'' he said. ''Want Want arrived and in 5 hours...they came in, paid a lot more, snapped their fingers and the deal was done.''
Though headquartered in Taiwan, Want Want relies on manufacturing in China, where concern is rising over whether Next Media -- whose editorial stance is often critical of Beijing -- is influencing public opinion in Taiwan, Lai said.
''I'm sure some people, especially in China, don't want me...to become the biggest media group in Taiwan,'' he said, adding, ''What the trend will be is Taiwanese businesspeople in China going back to Taiwan to buy media -- like Want Want -- to get good standing with the Chinese government or better status in China.''
Undeterred, Lai made public in February plans to launch two TV cable news channels in Taiwan -- one for general news and one for financial news. But this time Lai, 61, came armed with cash and King, renowned for his political savvy and closeness to Ma.
King served as Taipei's vice mayor under Ma 2004-2006, the last two years of Ma's eight-year mayoral stint. King later managed Ma's presidential campaign but shrugged off a Cabinet post last year, preferring instead to serve as a visiting scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, where he cemented ties with Lai.
Ma took office May 20, while King, who holds a Ph.D. in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin, began his half-year stint in Hong Kong in July.
''(King and I) were always together talking and I mentioned to him, 'If you're not going back into the government, maybe there's something we can do together because we're starting a TV station,''' Lai said.
Lai plans to spend roughly US$200 million to kick-start the channels, which -- with King's help -- could be launched from scratch or more likely remade from existing channels.
''We haven't talked seriously with any channel yet. We're still in the process of setting up a studio, hiring and training people and creating content,'' Lai said. Still, he hopes to launch both channels ''in the first quarter of 2010.''
But while King's connections may give Next Media ''a better reception'' -- vital to launching the channels by early next year -- Lai said King will not actively seek benefits from those connections.
''I think it would be a drawback if we had any dealings with the government,'' Lai said, adding, ''You can't hide anything because (King's) so exposed -- if he gets some advantages for us, everybody will know it.''
For his part, King has vowed journalistic fairness as CEO of the future channels, according to a report last month in the Taiwan edition of Apple Daily, the island's best-selling daily.
And already, some of Lai's toughest and most influential critics -- many of whom are friendly to China -- are warming to his plans for Taiwan's TV market.
Among them is Taichung Mayor Jason Hu, a former foreign minister and KMT heavyweight whose wife was photographed by an Apple Daily reporter in 2006 after a traffic accident that nearly killed her. The next day, the daily ran on its front page a large photo of Hu's blood-soaked wife -- an editorial move that sparked protests from privacy advocates at the newspaper's Taipei headquarters.
''I still have my reservations about Jimmy Lai...but (King) is no puppet. I have the utmost confidence in King,'' Hu told Kyodo News in an interview last month.
Typically a bellwether for KMT sentiment, Hu's remarks bode well for Next Media, whose habit of confronting Chinese leadership has scared off much potential advertising business in recent years for the Hong Kong editions of Apple Daily and Next Magazine, said a Next Media employee.
''Lai is really looking to Taiwan for expansion,'' the insider said on condition of anonymity because of press rules, adding, ''You don't have the fear of China in Taiwan as in Hong Kong, where businesses really avoid upsetting Beijing.''
Fortunately for Next Media -- which China again banned from covering its annual National People's Congress early this month -- upsetting the powers that be in Taiwan as it enters the island's TV market appears increasingly unlikely.
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|Comment:||FOCUS: Hong Kong mogul banks on rainmaker in Taiwan TV market bid.|
|Publication:||Asian Economic News|
|Date:||Mar 30, 2009|
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