No game-changers in new free-TV stations

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 5:09am


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Officials can fret about licensing new free-to-air television stations. Politicians can make noise and media scholars can talk about how competition will improve programming quality.

I'm sorry, but it won't make any difference in the end. Whether we have two or five such TV stations, they will still be crap. Hong Kong is just too small a market to justify the necessary investment, whatever Ricky Wong Wai-kay says about his fabulous station, which is waiting for a government licence.

I came to this realisation after spending 15 hours watching US programmes on a long-haul flight back home. The choices were lots of recent Hollywood movies and lots of recent episodes of cable television shows like Mad Men and Dexter. And cable beats Hollywood hands down. Those cable shows about twisted 1960s ad executives and a serial killer hunting down fellow killers embody a media genre that has successfully combined art and popularity in the past decade.

Ever since the debut of those anxiety-ridden mobsters in The Sopranos on HBO, cable shows in the US have been in a race to the top. The country's economics made that possible.

Since the wave of mergers of the media giants in the 1990s, their cable networks have consistently been the golden goose. The US has the market size to justify the heavy programming investment, which in turn cultivates real talent, many of whom have become true auteurs like their French cinematic counterparts of the 1960s.

The mainland has the potential market size and talent. Every now and then, even the state-owned stations pull off a winner. But political control simply stifles creativity and private investment.

Freewheeling Hong Kong has neither the market size nor sufficient talent pool. Self-serving as it is, TVB is right in arguing that TV programmes will just degrade if the pool of available content providers and artistes is spread thin among five companies. It's already happening as TVB has complained that its talent is being poached.

It's not a good sign when people are hired with a doubled salary just for being there rather than for any spectacular achievement. Do we seriously think these content providers and actors will do better than what they can't deliver at TVB?