Jake's View

Protecting free-to-air TV not the answer

The old formula is not working anymore. Opening the market will produce a winner and keep the industry alive and thriving

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 November, 2012, 5:03am

ATV rallied its staff outside the Admiralty government headquarters yesterday for a live broadcast to oppose a "disastrous" pledge by the former administration to issue new licences for television broadcasting.

SCMP, Nov 12

Back in the early 1980s when money was tighter and times were hard, I lived for a period on the island of Cheung Chau.

I loved the place, still do, and one of its peculiar delights back then was missing not a word of the nightly TVB variety show, Enjoy Yourself Tonight, while walking home along the narrow carless streets after a late day in the office. It came out of every door and window all the way.

Poor ATV, nary a clashing peep from its competing offerings did I hear when EYT was aired. ATV once held a television monopoly as Rediffusion Television but was brushed aside almost from the day that TVB was given a licence in 1967. Another entrant lasted only a few years in the 1970s.

ATV's continuing solvency has now been in question for more than 30 years and, it's my guess, has been sustained mostly because some people see great social standing in owning a television station.

But nothing is in the midst of greater change these days than the communications and entertainment industries. The free-to-air broadcast model is now a dinosaur. Look around you on the MTR for proof. I myself rarely watch broadcast TV these days and I don't know many people who do. There is too much else on offer.

The only thing for our licensing authorities to do in such an environment is to open the market wide, throw the cards in the air and let them fall where they may. Somewhere among those fluttering cards will be the answer to how tomorrow's world will look and someone will pick that card up and win with it.

It's the only way to be sure that a thriving industry will still exist in Hong Kong when all eventually settles down again. Preserving the free-to-air broadcast model in its present old-fashioned form by protecting the existing participants from competition is certainly the wrong way. That's a way to guarantee the certain demise of the industry here.

Thus I think that Wang Zhang, the mainland investor in ATV, who led the demonstration on Sunday, used the wrong word in terming earlier government pledges to issue new television licences as "disastrous".

More licences may indeed be disastrous for ATV shareholders who have preserved the song and dance styles of the 1970s in their station's programming to such an extent as to qualify its broadcasts for the history museum in East Tsim Sha Tsui, but they are good for Hong Kong. Mr Wang made some other unusual choices of word as well. He objected, for instance to "politicisation" of the industry. Just what do you call a demonstration in front of the government's offices then, Sir? What do you call a live broadcast of it?

He also objected to "taiwanisation", which is a word I cannot find in any dictionary. I assume it means defiance of Beijing, implying that Beijing has ordained no more than two broadcast licences in Hong Kong and we defy this at the risk of a National People's Congress re-interpretation of the Basic Law.

Believe it if you will.

His great gem of bluster, however, was: "Should there be [television stations] weeded out, ATV will be the last one."

He must have mixed up that verse in the Bible about the first shall be last and the last shall be first. I think I know who would really be first out.

The effect of this bravura was in any case ruined when a dozen of his Mr Asia contestants formed a protective human wall in front of him to bar the approach of legislator Claudia Mo Man-ching. Oh no, it's the fearsome Claudia. Save me, Mr Asia!

Best of all, in our report was a spokesman for the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau saying that it was considering new licence applications "expeditiously". That's more than three years of expeditious consideration since City Telecom (HK) applied for a new licence.

Methinks it's time for someone to get off the pot.