Time to switch onto another TV problem

While RTHK will show CCTV channel, the mainland is off limits to our broadcasters

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 4:54am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 November, 2013, 4:54am

One thing outsiders may find interesting about Hong Kong is the obsession with television. For more than a month, the issue of free-to-air television licences has made everyone feel like a commentator. This week, television again captured the attention of many: TVB, the city's biggest commercial broadcaster, celebrated its 46th anniversary amid controversy over programme quality.

Meanwhile, government-funded RTHK announced its digital blueprint, including a dry run next year which will see it devote a channel to relaying China Central Television's Channel 9.

No wonder some joke about Hongkongers realising that, consciously or subconsciously, watching television could be one of our "core values".

While debate rages on how many free television licences the government should have issued, one point has not been much discussed: while RTHK will carry Channel 9, none of Hong Kong's channels can be carried in full by any mainland station. Not very reciprocal, right?

Of course, Hong Kong is a free market while the media in the mainland is the last piece of "virgin" territory that still prohibits any foreign investor from taking a majority stake. That frustrates many Hong Kong media, especially television operators.

RTHK brushed off concerns that by carrying a CCTV channel, it would be a government mouthpiece. But those who hold such views may not see the full picture: the fact Hong Kong carries mainland channels but not vice-versa is not only due to politics, but also financial interests.

RTHK is not the first broadcaster to offer a platform to a mainland channel. Some CCTV and local channels have been carried on pay TV; then on ATV digital, in return for a "landing fee". The difference is that RTHK is public, while the other carriers are commercial.

Here comes the problem: it has been an open secret that, for decades, TVB and ATV programmes were "taken" by stations in the Pearl River Delta - which inserted their own commercials in place of those from Hong Kong. TVB and ATV complained to Beijing, seeking a share of the revenue. The matter was eventually settled.

In provinces beyond those in the delta where the profit-sharing deal is in place, Hong Kong channels can only be shown in a few hotels. It is therefore hard for TVB and ATV to cultivate the mainland advertising market.

So this is the reality: there is a big market up north but many barriers to access.

When we argue about the development of Hong Kong's television industry, unbalanced access to the mainland market is another factor we have to face. In the long run, when viewers in Hong Kong have more chance to view mainland channels but Hong Kong channels are limited to our city, what should and can our television talents do?