English programming will suffer under terms of new TV licences

Michael Chugani says English broadcasting will suffer, not improve, under the current terms to grant licences for additional TV stations

PUBLISHED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 19 November, 2012, 10:52am

First, I must declare an interest. I host a weekly show for ATV. Now, let's deal with all the nonsense that's been said about whether Hong Kong needs additional free-to-air TV stations. I am aghast at how uninformed the public debate has been. Most people can be excused for lacking a full grasp of the issue, but surely we expect legislators and commentators to know the facts before they shoot their mouths off.

Viewers of course benefit if additional TV stations generate increased competition. But the question is not whether the government should issue more TV licences, it's what terms accompany such licences. Legislators, in pandering to the public, are focusing solely on the shallow argument that more licences offer more choice. People mistakenly believe additional stations will lift the quality of English channels.

The fact is that none of the three applicants for TV licences have included an English channel in their plans. If, as some believe, the new stations would cause ATV to fold, the result would be a loss of an English channel, not a gain of three. We will then have just one free-to-air English channel.

So much for competition. You could argue that, as a predominantly Chinese city, we don't need English channels. But to those who say additional TV licences will make us more of an international city, I say think again.

There has been much public mocking of ATV for resisting new licences. It is not my job to defend the station since I am just a freelancer doing a weekly show. Besides, I am all for open competition. But all those pushing for additional licences have either forgotten, or chosen not to remember, one very important point.

The government imposed tough conditions on both TVB and ATV when they renewed their licences, which will expire in 2015. Both stations must have English channels, which are money losers. The two stations are required to provide news and current affairs programmes on both channels. And both must have a business plan; ATV must invest HK$2.3 billion, and TVB HK$6.3 billion over six years until 2015.

Hong Kong prides itself on its sense of fair play. So how is it fair if TVB and ATV are forced to compete with new players who don't have to play by the same tough rules? How fair is it if the new players are exempt from having costly English channels? How does that benefit the public or advance our desire to be an international city?

But these questions are not being asked. Competition is only good if it is fair. Why should one of the applicants, Ricky Wong Wai-kay, be treated as an innocent victim because he sold his business and invested millions in a TV station before getting a licence?

The government should, of course, issue new TV licences if they benefit the public. But it must make the applicants publicise their plans and investment commitments for all to see. Only then can we know whether the public will gain from the new stations. And, most importantly, there must be a level playing field for all.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host. mickchug@gmail.com