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to Next Media animation

By Jens Kastner

TAIPEI - When Next Media Animation's (NMA) content and business development manager Michael Logan spoke to Taipei film and arts students recently, their initial resentment against the company's notorious computer-animated news stories was perceivable.

In the presentation provocatively named "Next Media Animation: Is this the future of media?" Logan commented on the clips that have since obtained cult-status in much of the Western world. An early highlight was an animation of Tiger Woods crashing his car after his wife (supposedly) attacked him with a golf club. There was The US-China Currency Rap Battle, featuring US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao. And there was

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Apple chief executive Steve Jobs being shown chopping a customer's fingers of with a laser sword so as to improve his iPhone's reception.

Yet while each clip drew its laughter, the audience's comments focused on the ethical aspects rather than on NMA's success, let alone on artistic value. What became apparent at this punk-rock style venue was that Taiwan has not yet come to terms with its most famous exporter of creativity.

NMA is a Taiwan-based subsidiary of Next Media, a Hong Kong media conglomerate. Its business is creating depictions of news-worthy events to which no footage exists. In 2010, propelled by the Tiger Woods re-enactment that went viral on YouTube, NMA broke its Chinese-language constraints, becoming known to international audiences. Amusingly, even the clips produced for export are narrated in, to Western ears, somewhat hectically sounding Mandarin and only subtitled in English.

The speed with which the Taiwanese animators churn out their products is striking. Some 300 employees are toiling away at NMA's Taipei studio, each day creating no fewer than 56 digital re-enactments of everything from juicy scandals involving Hollywood actors to grisly murders committed in the Taiwanese capital's satellite cities. As a hallmark feature, characters in NMA-animated local crime scenes are mostly blonde and blue-eyed, leaving the impression that the Taiwanese public on a daily basis fall victim to bloodthirsty hordes of Scandinavians.

Whereas it's the satire that's known abroad, with 46% of its audience being in the United States, it accounts only for a fraction of the total output. By far the most animations are created for local news being placed on TV and on the Web site of Apple Daily, a tabloid subdivision of Next Media.

"If an Apple Daily reporter wants to make a video report but lacks footage, he orders the missing part as an animation with us," said Logan. Addressing the objections of his audience, he made a puzzling statement: "By using animations, we don't change laws of reporting; all laws of reporting still apply."

Logan then cited a clip depicting former US vice president Al Gore sexually assaulting a masseuse in his hotel room, seeking to make plausible why cases like Gore's are predestined to end up as animations.

"There is no footage. All there is is a 76-page legal document. The story had to be told with help of an animation," said Logan.

Logan further brought into account that although he doesn't know whether Tiger Woods actually smiled or not when driving away from an adulterous sexual encounter, it was alright for NMA to freely make up Wood's facial expression. "By putting a smile on on his face, we don't change his story, either."

Once again, Logan's audience reacted with laughter, albeit hardly convinced.

Significantly more suspicious of NMA than Taipei's film and arts students is the island's political caste. In September 2010, Taiwan's National Communications Commission (NCC) rejected Next Media's applications for licenses for a news channel and a general interest channel. Reasons cited were the network's plans to present news in a "docudrama" format, which, according to the regulators, "do not meet professional standards of journalism and truthful reporting". It was further noted that "mass media have a responsibility to ensure that their programming conforms with ethical and moral standards acceptable to the general public".

Otherwise, in cases involving the media, the Taiwanese authorities are considerably less stringent. It wasn't before January 2011 that news-like advertisements from government institutions or government-owned businesses that are vaguely or not at all labeled were banned. Even after the ban, the authorities allegedly continue to turn a blind eye to propaganda articles of China's state-run media being added as unidentified supplements to local newspapers.

Seeking to shed light on whether it's the ruling Kuomintang (KMT) or the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) that tries hard to keep NMA at bay, Tsai Chia-hung, a professor at Taipei's National Chengchi University, said both sides have their respective resentments.

"In some ways, the KMT is favored by Next Media because of the ruling party's long-term monopoly of resources. But on the other hand, the KMT is criticized by Next Media for not giving it a TV channel," Tsai said. "The Liberty Times [the DPP mouthpiece] may object to the opening of a TV channel by a media company from Hong Kong."

The charge that Next Media, because it is a Hong Kong-based company, could spread Chinese propaganda in Taiwan seems indeed bizarre. The media conglomerate has from its beginnings rejected any attempts to pressure it from above or to make it take sides politically. NMA, like Apple Daily, has been banned from China for years because it arguably doesn't shy away from tackling material politically sensitive to Beijing.

Jimmy Lai, the founder of the media empire and according to Forbes Hong Kong's 50th richest person, has never made a secret of despising the communist leadership and in many instances has publicly insulted Chinese officials.

According to Tsai, most Taiwanese people watch NMA's animations for their entertaining content and like the funny views that are so different from those shown by other media. And even though NMA has become far more famous in the West than any other company representing the island's creative industry, Tsai doesn't think the Taiwanese public takes particular pride in NMA's achievements.

"This is because although it's very localized, it is still a foreign media outlet in the eyes of many people", he said.

Huang Hua-hsi, a Taiwanese legislative assistant, pointed out that "the circumstance that no other media outlet has so far followed up on Next Media's business idea proves that in Taiwan the Hong Kong-founded company has not been as popular as expected".

He argues that the frequent breaches of ethical boundaries turns off the Taiwanese.

"Next Media's concern for livelihood issues as well as the neutral and objective of the criticism cannot be discounted, but their focus on social news and especially on sex scandals and rape is absolutely unacceptable," said Huang.

That, however, has not helped build up a readership of 2.3 million, just below the 2.8 million readers claimed by Liberty Times.

Huang said that if a place should be proud of NMA's creativity that has been exciting the Western media world, it should be Hong Kong and not Taiwan.

Why Taiwan was picked as the location for the animation studios in the first place was up to Michael Logan to explain. "Other Hong Kong animation companies have five people working in the territory and the rest on the Chinese mainland because it's cheaper. NMA cannot go to China."

Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based journalist.