Famous Taiwan news animator taken off market, away from China

A deal fell through this week to sell Taiwan's Next Media, known for spoofs on everyone from the British royals to Sarah Palin. Many Taiwanese worried that its sale could have given it a pro-China bias.

Pichi Chuang/REUTERS
A man walks past the logo of Next Media at its headquarters in Taipei January 21. Taiwan regulators, under pressure from a public worried that Beijing may meddle in their media, have begun talking tough on TV and newspaper deals by Taiwanese businessmen with strong ties to the mainland.

You may never have heard of Taiwan’s Next Media but you may have seen its handiwork while surfing television channels or online.

The Daily Show with Jon Stewart highlighted the animation studio’s spoof on the royal wedding in 2012, and the group's poke at Tiger Woods, imitations of Al Gore, and a jab at Silvio Berlusconi’s sex scandals in Italy all went viral on the Internet.

But then in November, the media group known so well for depicting famous controversies around the world suddenly found itself at the center of its own kerfuffle at home when it announced it was for sale to a conservative business group with China connections. The news set off a chain of street demonstrations in Taiwan, drawing thousands.  

In Taiwan, the media tends to be heavily polarized, either bashing China or avoiding criticism of it. Independent empires such as Next Media are rare. So activists feared that the prospective buyers would take that gem away by revamping Next Media to please China and compromise its irreverent independence.

But on Wednesday, Next Media announced that the buyers had bailed. As the consortium of four buyers missed a deadline to complete the deal worked out in November, the media group sought to reassert the independent spirit that made it popular before the concern about Chinese control started looming.

It said that except for television, which has lost more than $200 million since 2003, the group is no longer for sale.

“People’s concerns are fair and with evidence,” says Leonard Chu, a retired media studies professor at National Chengchi University in Taipei, referring to protesters and skeptical academics. “We know that China is not an open society, so that’s a reason to worry.”

Of Taiwan’s six major daily papers and six mainstream cable TV channels, only three regularly raise doubts about Taiwan’s engagement with China.

The Want Want Group, a main contender to buy Next Media, controls several Taiwanese media outlets seen as warm toward Beijing, and raised fears that the politically neutral Next Media coverage would be slanted toward Beijing. But before the $586 million takeover could be finalized, a Next Media spokesman said infighting between investors crashed the deal.

“The buyers decided they don’t want to go forward,” says Next Media’s commercial director Mark Simon, who added that Next Media changed its mind about selling. “The company is not for sale anymore.”

Next Media’s animated graphics, which use lifelike cartoon videos of politicians and celebrities to recreate news events, have earned the company a cult following online. Next Media’s Internet following has reached about 15 million in Taiwan and Hong Kong combined.

“Why go out and put your employees and put everybody through hell?” Simon says of the decision to take the company off the market. “TV is on the way out, and we’ll sell TV, but everything else here makes money. It’s a very profitable company.” 

Because of pressure from the public, Taiwan’s broadcast authorities and the legislature are studying whether they can change laws to prevent media monopolies.

“The public opinions toward the purchase did play a role in keeping the government on their toes, so they can’t just not be transparent and let a deal go through,” says Ketty Chen, a political scientist and visiting instructor at National Taiwan University in Taipei.

China has claimed self-ruled Taiwan since the Chinese civil war of the 1940s and demands that the two sides eventually reunify. Beijing has not ruled out the use of force, keeping the island on guard, despite a thaw in relations since 2008.

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