- Associated Press - Tuesday, October 2, 2012

TAIPEI, TAIWAN (AP) - Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai announced Tuesday he will sell his prized Taiwan television business, best known for its fanciful animated takes on political and celebrity scandals, because of big financial losses.

In a brief letter to employees of his Next Media Group, Lai apologized for his “failure” in running Next TV.

Next TV has incurred losses of over $340 million since it was founded in Taipei three years ago, says Next Media’s Apple Daily newspaper. At the TV unit’s much ballyhooed launch, Lai pledged to invest heavily to build a “world class, high-quality digital video and sound platform.”

The group’s television unit and an affiliated company will lay off 500 employees as part of the sale to Lien Tai-sheng, owner of Taiwan’s Era Television, according to Apple. The profit-making Apple Daily and a weekly magazine will not be affected.

Apple editor-in-chief Ma Wei-min blamed the TV business’ heavy losses on Taiwan’s “complicated” political and commercial environment, noting Lai has run into strong opposition because of his “consistently uncompromising anti-Beijing stance.”

It was also reportedly blocked from being picked up by cable TV networks, restricting its advertising revenue.

Taiwan’s freewheeling democracy protects freedom of speech, but many businesses have distinctive pro- or anti-China positions. Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949, but trade across the 160-kilometer- (100-mile-) wide Taiwan Strait has boomed amid warming relations in recent years, raising the commercial stakes for media companies on this island of 23 million people.

Like the Next Media group’s newspaper and its weekly magazine, Next TV is best known for its coverage of scantily clad starlets, its paparazzi-generated entertainment news, and its racy reports of corruption and scandals among politicians and celebrities.

Next TV first attracted international attention with its computer-enhanced animated news featurettes, a Lai brainchild that was introduced in 2009. The clips offer fanciful interpretations of cutting edge news events, and made arguably their biggest splash in November 2009, when one depicting golf superstar Tiger Woods arguing with his wife over an extramarital affair went viral on the Internet.

But the company was encountering difficulties at home, held back by its lack of a broadcasting license for its news channel, which was only granted in July 2011, after Lai promised regulators he would avoid overly sensational animated reports portraying sex and violence. That limited its broadcasts to entertainment, sports, and movies, significantly crimping profits.

Also hurting it was its failure to be picked up by a cable TV channel, the conventional way of attracting advertising revenue in Taiwan.

Lai launched the Apple Daily and Next Magazine in Taiwan in 2001. Their successful operations have put pressure on Taiwan’s traditional, more conservative news media, which look pale and uninspired compared to Lai’s glitzy stable of products.

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