Why quality TV in Hong Kong is dead - and won't be resurrected
It’s been over a week since the decision was made and despite tens of thousands taking to the streets on Sunday the government remains tight-lipped over why it chose to go against the original television policy and denied Hong Kong Television Network’s (HKTV) bid for a free-to-air TV licence.
Conspiracy theories speculating the reasons behind HKTV’s failure have been circulating and are getting more creative than the station’s own drama series: its chairman Ricky Wong Wai-kay’s questionable financial sources and alleged connection with Next Media’s Jimmy Lai; Wong’s aggressiveness in pressing for the granting of a licence has allegedly offended the government; some in the government or the Executive Council were trying to protect the existing domestic free TV stations.
Apparently the saga already escalated to a level that goes beyond why Hong Kong people are denied the chance to watch the 300 hours of HK$200 million worth of dramas and infotainment programmes that HKTV has already produced. It is about the government’s accountability, public trust and social justice, which I already elaborated in detail in my personal blog Culture Shock (www.viviennechow.com). However, there is one issue I didn’t touch upon, which is the construction of a Hong Kong cultural identity.
What makes HKTV stand out from the other two applicants that will be granted licences - i-Cable’s Fantastic TV and PCCW’s Hong Kong Television Entertainment – is that HKTV focuses on drama and infotainment programmes.
It is a stark contrast with the plans of the other two stations which will be focusing on lifestyle and news programmes, which are already running in their pay-TV subsidiaries Cable TV (i-Cable) and Now TV (PCCW). Wong kept emphasising his political indifference and his determination to focus on entertainment rather than current affairs programmes. But apparently this could be where the problem lies.
While news and current affairs programmes are important indicators of a city’s freedom of speech, TV dramas are among the most powerful tools for the construction of a cultural identity and the spreading of ideologies. This was recognised at academic and government level. In New Zealand’s The Social Report 2010, content programming on television was identified as the primary indicator that “television is the dominant cultural medium for most New Zealanders”, and hence television has a strong influence on how New Zealanders see themselves. Television was an integral part of the daily routine of some people, according to scholar James Lull, and as a result, what is portrayed on TV, fictional or not, will certainly influence people’s way of thinking.
This was exactly the case in Hong Kong. TVB was launched as the city’s first free-to-air broadcaster in November 1967 – just after violence began to subside after a series of leftist riots that killed 51 people. Night time daily variety show Enjoy Yourself Tonight, which promoted a new way to relax and enjoy the evening after a long day of work and dinner, became an important programme in TVB’s schedule. The satirical elements in the show became a channel for viewers to vent their discontent with society. The popularity of the programme also helped deter people from roaming the streets – keeping the society in order after the riots using a cultural tool.
Television in the 1970s was influenced by the economic boom. Drama series reflecting the newfound modernity Hong Kong was experiencing at the time were rolled out one after another: there was the epic 129-episode drama Hotel (1976), A House Is Not A Home (家變) in 1977, Conflict (奮鬥) and The Giant in 1978, and the classic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (網中人) in 1979.
And from these series, people adopted the idea that success was defined by one’s achievements in the business world, and everybody had a chance as long as you worked hard on it. It also shaped people’s perspective of the world – the lazy and dumb mainland immigrant Ah Chan portrayed by Liu Wai-hung in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly pretty much defined how Hongkongers viewed mainlanders back in those days.
On the other hand, there was leeway for experiment – Seven Women: Miu Kam-fung (1976) was a ground-breaking TV film in which Patrick Tam Ka-ming paid homage to French New Wave auteur Jean-Luc Godard.
The intense competition between TVB and Rediffusion Television (the forerunner of ATV) demanded for quality productions, and the TV industry became a cradle for today’s best-known film talents, from directors Ann Hui On-wah and Johnnie To Kei-fung to actors Tony Leung Chiu-wai and Andy Lau Tak-wah. ATV, on the other hand, exported acclaimed actors Chapman To and Cheung Ka-fai.
TV dramas also became cultural products exported to Southeast Asia and Chinese-speaking communities around the world. It was the pride of Hong Kong.
Canto-pop, which was created largely evolving around TV dramas, was also exported to the rest of the world. Hong Kong was a leader only after Japan. TV dramas telling authentic Hong Kong stories constructed a unique Hong Kong cultural identity.
But the legend of Hong Kong television no longer lives. As TVB wins the ratings even with poorly produced programmes, quality and creativity in TV industry has reached a new low. And at the same time, standard of TV productions from South Korea, mainland China, Taiwan and even Southeast Asia surpassed that of Hong Kong.
As local news and current affairs programmes already have little market value overseas, demand for Hong Kong TV products is diminishing, possibly to a level that Hong Kong might lose its cultural pride and influence in the region.
If more quality dramas can be produced and exported, the dampened Hong Kong spirit could be revived. But the station that vowed to produce dramas has been ousted.
Could it be that someone out there doesn’t want Hongkongers to retain a Hong Kong cultural identity?