Should Hong Kong have more free-to-air television broadcasters? The answer to this question should be simple and straightforward. For more than three decades, the only choice has been between TVB or ATV. This duopoly for a sophisticated city of seven million people seems awfully inadequate. The dominance of TVB has further distorted the market, undermined competition and limited choice. The need for more players is obvious.
Hopes for change emerged three years ago when three newcomers formally filed their bids. One intends to offer up to 30 channels within six years, outnumbering the dozen currently provided by the two terrestrial broadcasters. Regrettably, the government has still not made a decision, even though the former Broadcasting Authority long ago cleared their applications for consideration by the Executive Council. Despite several grillings by lawmakers, commerce minister Greg So Kam-leung still cannot explain why a decision has not been made after 1,000 days; nor will he give a deadline on when a decision will be made. The delay has prompted one applicant to consider filing a judicial review in court.
The profound influence of television on the public means the government has to be cautious when vetting the applications. But that does not mean officials can be excused for dragging out the process for so long. The strong public feelings on this issue show people are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the delay.
The government claims to be pro-competition and says it will follow public interest when deciding on licensing. But the policy is meaningless if it is not put into practice. An unreasonably long process inevitably arouses speculation. If the process does not involve political consideration, there is no reason why a decision cannot be made quickly.
ATV has argued that there is no room for a third player. It's objection to opening up the market is understandable, since further competition might put the underdog broadcaster out of business. But it abused the airwaves by broadcasting live its own protest-cum-variety show against the issuing of more licences at government headquarters last Sunday. That the authority was flooded with 2,000 complaints about the programme in the following days shows people clearly believe ATV was wrong to put its own interests ahead of the public good. The government should recognise public aspirations for more competition and make an early decision on the licences.