Using small screen for big issues

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 09 Feb 2003

After spending close to 12 years in advertising,Lina Tan ventured into television in a bid to raise present standards in the industry. As she tells RUBIN KHOO,television is a young medium and one that can be used to influence an entire generation 

SMALL and petite she may be, but diminutive is hardly the adjective one would use to describe Lina Tan, executive producer of Red Communications and the brain behind TV programmes like the highly popular 3R and Generasi.  

At 35, Tan exudes an energy that isn’t all that different from the three Powerpuff Girls that sit on her table. She is indeed quite a powerhouse and one doesn’t doubt that, like the Powerpuffs, she is fully capable of kicking butt when needed.  

And perhaps she has to be. After all, not everyone has what it takes to walk away from a highly successful advertising career after investing more than a decade in it.  

But Tan isn’t just anyone. She is someone with a mission. Already well known among the NGO circuit as an advocate of social issues, Tan made the decision close to four years ago that the time had come for her to reach a wider audience and try to influence public opinion, particularly on issues that concern women and youth.  

For her, the best medium to do this was through television. “TV has always fascinated me,” she says, “and something that I have always wanted to do, having drawn my inspiration from the early days of TV3.  

“I thought that TV was quite good at the time. Programmes like Majalah 3 and Money Matters did some in-depth reporting and the pioneer TV3 newscasters were impressive. They inspired me to do TV and I am sure more people have come into the industry as a result of them.” 

Tan thus pursued her interest by studying Film and Television at Universiti Sains Malaysia. Upon completion, however, she did not venture into TV but instead joined a production house where she began her career as a junior producer. She was earning just RM800 a month at the time, she says, laughing.  

But in three short years, she quickly carved a name for herself in the world of television commercial production, working in various production houses. Soon after, she was roped in to start Fringe Films, a subsidiary of Renaissance Films.  

During her time there, she continued to produce TV ads but she also diversified slightly, producing the very slick KRU video Fanatik. Regarded as a benchmark till today, Fanatik went on to win every local music video award and was also nominated for an MTV Asia video award in 1998. 

Commercials for brand names like Carlsberg, Anglia Shandy, Guinness Stout, American Express, Lipton Tea, Nestle, Renault and Ponds are just some of the many ads that have borne her stamp at one point or other.  

But one evening as her shoot for a detergent dragged on, Tan began to wonder. There she stood trying to get a shirt as white as possible when she asked herself whether this was how she wanted to spend the rest of her life.  

It was then that she realised perhaps the time had come for her to make a switch. In August 1999, Tan founded Red Communications, a production company specialising in women’s and youth programmes. 

“It was a kind of feeling in which I felt that I wanted to do something more and that’s why I wanted to do TV because it is a young medium and one that can be used to influence thoughts and minds,” she explains. 

Tan’s leap into television began with a project from Astro. She was asked to come up with fillers for the Disney channel that served as the prelude to Disney Buzz. The fillers, which were shot completely on location, provided Tan with the opportunity to learn about an aspect of the broadcasting industry that she was not all that familiar with.  

“I learnt a lot from working with Disney. I learnt to produce good quality stuff with a low budget. We produced about 300 fillers. The budget was low but we did some extraordinary things.  

“It is very interesting because the industry is divided between those who work on commercials and those who work on television and movies. The people don’t mix. So when I ventured into TV, the scenario was completely different,” Tan says. 

The advertising world, she realised, was somewhat pampered, a world cushioned by money. Shooting an ad on location would mean having the luxuries like an art director and catering.  

When shooting a programme, however, the budgets are usually small, schedules are tight and the crew is usually made up of just three people. 

The producer is thus beset with the problem of ensuring quality while keeping costs down, but it was here that Tan’s advertising background came in handy. 

She was able to integrate what she learnt in advertising into programming, enabling her to achieve a balance between a good production and keeping costs down. 

It may seem a bold ambition but Tan is intent on raising the standards of local television. The opportunity arose when she was having a chat with Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir about the state of local TV and the need for responsible television that reaches out to the public came out.  

“Production values have declined. Those days you had things like Cumi dan Ciki (programme for children). It was simple but at least they got their facts right. 

“These days the production houses are doing interesting things but not the big boys, and unfortunately, TV is dominated by the big boys.” 

Reaching out is something that Tan is already familiar with, having worked with numerous NGOs like All Women’s Action Society (AWAM), Pink Triangle and National Society for the Deaf.  

In 1995, she received a Red Ribbon Media Award from the Malaysian Aids Council for her work in raising awareness about HIV/AIDS in the country. A year later, she was the recipient of two awards at the Malaysian Video Awards for the social message video on AIDS entitled Love Me Tender.  

She had also worked with AWAM on issues involving gender empowerment and self-defence but Tan was interested in going beyond the circle.  

Thus, the idea of producing a women’s programme, but one that diverted from the norm, was pitched to Marina, the Malaysian Aids Council President.  

Instead of the usual “muka seri” and “wajah ayu” kind of stories that most local women’s programmes dealt with, Tan wanted to focus on issues in the same vein as perhaps, Oprah Winfrey. Hence, the creation of 3R – Respect, Relax, Respond, a magazine style programme aimed at empowering young women on a variety of issues including rape, relationships, money, menstruation, sexuality, sports, whitening products and even breasts. “Issues,” Tan says, “that affect people.”  

Soon to begin its sixth season in March, Tan says that it basically took the team two seasons to get the programme right. It was hard to get across to that group and so they did “a very NGO thing”: They conducted role-play. Their intention was to portray the mindset of youngsters.  

3R was the first project that involved targeting a wider audience and so for the first time, I had to strike a fine balance between commercialisation and the social themes. 

“When we first started, we weren’t too controversial but after the first two seasons, we got feedback and it was during the third season that we became more focussed.” 

Well, 3R has certainly made an impact. It was named “Best Infotainment” at the recent Asian Television Awards and also scored a nomination for “Best Youth Program”.  

Meanwhile, the show’s hosts Low Ngai Yuen, Azah Azmin Yusoff and Kartini Kamalul Arrifin presented an award at the ceremony held on Dec 4 at the University Cultural Centre in Singapore, a testimony to the fact that 3R has indeed made its mark. 

“People were ready for it and that’s the reason for the success. People were willing to accept it but we have to improve and that is the difficult part. Every season the programme has to reinvent itself. It is like doing a new programme altogether.” 

But Tan believes they will never run short of issues. However, as they attempt to educate the public on these issues, the subject of censorship inevitably crops up every now and again.  

The show has been censored in the past, she says, but not without a fight. While she is willing to compromise on certain issues, she vows that she will fight as hard as possible to try to make officials see the bigger picture and the overall message that is being conveyed.  

The other programme, Generasi, currently being shown on Astro is a docu-drama that showcases young people in Malaysia and the challenges they face as they try to make their mark in the world. 

Unfortunately, Generasi has not generated as much attention as 3R, which is a shame as the show highlights some pretty amazing things that have been achieved by young people.  

Since she first ventured into television, Tan has seen the industry move considerably. There was a time, she says, when nobody wanted to do TV. Instead, everyone went into advertising because that was where the money was. 

But now the mindset has changed, she says. For her, it was about doing something more and she has certainly made an impact in the short time since she crossed over. Now, she has set her sights on producing films.  

Incidentally, she is a fan of programmes like Sex and the City and The Gilmore Girls, which is only natural since they deal with women’s issues.  

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