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The blurry lines of animated 'news'

By Pamela Boykoff, CNN
  • Next Media has garnered millions of Web hits for its controversial animated news hit
  • Teams of animators dramatize the day's news events to supplement actual news footage
  • Taipei has fined the company $30,000 for graphic violence and sexual content
  • Media
  • Taiwan
  • China

Taipei, Taiwan (CNN) -- It's after 7 p.m. at Next Media's offices in Taipei, and the day's news starts coming to life: Artists lift details from news photos while actors in motion sensor suits re-create action sequences of stories making headlines. Animators graft cartoon avatars to the live-motion action, and the stories hit the Web.

Welcome to billionaire Jimmy Lai's newest gamble: Animated news. When news agencies didn't have footage of scenes from the car crash involving Tiger Woods, Lai's team raced to put together animation dramatizing the incident, garnering hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube.

The end product drew derision, with critics saying there's a credibility gap because the animated features mix real news footage with dramatizations of often unverified versions of events.

Lai is a media tycoon known for his tabloid publications in Hong Kong and Taiwan. He has invested $30 million and two-and-a-half-years into a team of 180 employees to create virtual depictions of news events in a matter of hours.

Every day they churn out about 20 reports, often a combination of animation and real video, for the Web sites of Lai's Apple Daily newspapers in Taiwan and Hong Kong.

"You have a lot of missing images, in the TV, in the news reporting," Lai said. "If this is an image generation or image era that we are in, that is a big gap we are filling."

The practice has earned the ire of Taipei city government officials, who recently fined Next Media for its animated news reports.

Since its launch in November, the animated news service has drawn more than 20 million views to the Apple Daily Web sites, according to the company. The most popular were those connected to the Woods accident.

Video: Animation news?

The animations blurred the line between news reporting and fiction, often depicting events that Next Media had not reported on directly.

"That Tiger Woods animation was very entertaining but it was nothing approaching journalism," said Howard Kurtz, Washington Post media critic and host of CNN's Reliable Sources. "It didn't look like journalism. It didn't smell like journalism, it didn't feel like journalism. So let's not confuse a bunch of cartoons with what people in the news business do."

Lai argues that the images were based on reports from local newspapers and magazines.

"Is the whole part accurate? No," Lai said. "What is important is that we are keeping the integrity of the news. You know, if I'm talking to you and the animation comes out that I'm in a blue sweater instead of a red one, the detail is wrong, but it does not affect the integrity of the news."

Critics have also attacked the animations for their graphic nature and depictions of sexual and violent crimes in Taipei and Hong Kong. Taipei's city government fined the company $30,000 under a law that protects children from exposure to obscene or violent material.

The Taipei government has blocked Next Media's attempts to bring its animated news to television. The National Communications Commission in Taiwan recently rejected Next Media's application for a television license, citing the salacious nature of the animations.

"If I am the victim of a rape and then you present that through an animation, how do I recover from that whole thing?" said NCC Chairwoman Bonnie Peng.

Next Media is reapplying for a license, but Peng said the company needs to clean-up its content.

"If they redefine what they should cover -- scientific news, innovation, many good things through animation -- that is fine with us," she says. "Probably we will encourage that kind of development, but if they just put all the emphasis on crime and sex and all the sensational news, that is not permitted."

Lai says the stories are similar to what appears in his print publications, but the impact of the visual images is greater. He admits Next Media may need to be more sensitive.

Lai is no stranger to controversy. He created his wealth with the Giordano clothing empire, and moved into publishing with Next Magazine in Hong Kong in 1990. He was forced to sell his stake in Giordano in 1994 after making what were seen as insulting comments about the mainland Chinese leadership.

Lai then focused on building his media empire, launching his flagship Apple Daily newspaper in Hong Kong in 1995. He expanded into the Taiwan market in 2001.

With or without his own station, Lai thinks his animations are headed for televisions worldwide. His company is currently in talks with several major media organizations to churn out news animations on demand using Next Media's graphic artists and software tools.

"If (animated news) is a fad, we fail," Lai said. "But we are used to failure anyway."