Why you should care
Because maybe there’s a decent TV alternative to bumming people out all day with bad news.
It was a horrible accident in Taiwan, and the images flashed across one television screen after another last July when a gas explosion killed 31 and injured 300 people. But the news on little Da Ai Television focused on something else: a relief volunteer who was inspired to help people live because his brother had died in a plane crash just weeks before.
So it goes in a country that could use some good news. While the country’s six mainstream cable news channels continue to cover all that can go wrong in this part of the world, a nonprofit television station, launched by a Buddhist charity, has decided to ignore the competition with a steady diet of upbeat developments. As while it’s hardly threatening enough to put anyone out of business, news viewership on Da Ai Television’s mission has doubled since it started 15 years ago. It ranks in the island’s top 15 stations out of more than 100.
“They try as hard as possible to broadcast positive news. That’s required because Taiwan’s news environment is bad.”
Da Ai (“big love” in Chinese) does cover bad news, such as the November typhoon that killed 6,300 people in the Philippines and the gas explosion. But instead of showing images of death, Da Ai’s 300 correspondents chase aid workers, including those who work for the television station’s backer, the Buddhism-inspired Tzu Chi Culture and Communication Foundation. It’s one way of addressing people’s fatigue with all the usual coverage of crime and disaster.
“If I watch news, I’ll watch Da Ai,” says Derjk Wu, 40, a freelance performing artist in Taipei and a viewer for 10 years. “They try as hard as possible to broadcast positive news. That’s required because Taiwan’s news environment is bad.”
“We hope the news we produce will make more people feel that society has the power to move in the right direction.”
Da Ai news viewership is 0.2 percent of Taiwan’s 23 million people, television station public affairs Section Chief Charlie Ke says. Tzu Chi founder Cheng Yen launched the network to stoke public generosity. A drama channel with real stories played by actors earns a 2 percent market share. “We broadcast news about acts of concern,” he says. “We won’t go out to stir up conflicts or foster hatred against another party. We hope the news we produce will make more people feel that society has the power to move in the right direction.”
Satellite dishes can pick up Da Ai overseas from France to the Philippines, and news is aired in English three times a day. Da Ai does not keep figures on overseas viewership. The network earns 93 percent of its $82 million annual revenue from donations. The rest comes from interest, the charity headquarters and sales of blankets made by Tzu Chi from recycled plastic bottles. In its first year Da Ai logged revenue of just $1.32 million.
On a random weekday morning in September, Da Ai was airing a news feature on the lack of rainfall in California this year, playing up the state government’s advice to conserve water and urging Taiwanese to cherish their rainier climate. At the same time a commercial cable channel showed three people being arrested for the death of a police officer at a Taiwan nightclub.
Although Buddhism is a dominant Taiwan religion, some viewers take issue with the rigidity of Da Ai’s faith-based approach to news and real-life dramas — a lower-key version of Christian televangelists in the United States, which irritates some viewers. Others tire of Da Ai covering the parent foundation’s own charity work. George Hou, an associate media studies professor at I-Shou University in Taiwan, says the focus of the station is a natural result of Taiwan’s openness and diversity. “Everyone needs to have a position so audiences understand their products,” he says. “If you believe in religion, you’ll watch the good news, saying ‘OK, faith is required.’” Two of Taiwan’s biggest cable news networks, TVBS and Formosa TV, did not respond to requests for comments.
Maureen Liu of Taiwan would once tune in as late as 10 p.m., picking Da Ai over 24-hour news networks as she channel-surfed. The 40-year-old medical equipment company worker appreciates that the star of each drama would solve a life problem by becoming a Buddhist foundation member and helping others. Some characters were in extramarital affairs or using others for material gain. Liu found some plots “strange” but the moral of each story “energizing.”
“There are some dramas that really do inspire you,” she says.