Hong Kong's TV industry has hardly changed since 1967, so how will it respond to the Netflix-led internet content revolution?

Vivienne Chow says the arrival of Netflix and other streaming services heralds a television revolution in the city. But can local operators adapt, and how will it affect our cultural identity?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 September, 2015, 9:22am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 September, 2015, 9:22am

Television is most certainly not dead. Just when many have grown tied of the lacklustre offerings and have begun switching off, a TV revolution led by a global force is about to hit town.

The arrival of Netflix, the latest Apple TV launch and mainland online platform LeTV's plans for Hong Kong - including reportedly snatching the broadcast rights for English Premier League soccer - have made headlines in the past week. To the city's TV fans, nothing is more exciting than having a choice of entertainment beyond programmes produced by the local free-to-air broadcasters, the dominant TVB and the beleaguered ATV, and pay-TV operators Cable TV and Now TV.

But while consumers may welcome the choice, the availability of these international content powerhouses will undoubtedly shake Hong Kong's television ecology to the core.

Locally produced content will go head-to-head with quality programmes from all over the world, thanks to high-speed internet access and state-of-art hardware and software. How can local players compete with these multimillion-dollar productions and retain their audiences and advertisers?

Are Hong Kong's TV policies and regulatory structure ready to embrace this change? Will Netflix in Hong Kong face a similar fate to Uber?

The other question is, how will this affect Hong Kong culturally? Television has long been seen as an integral tool that has helped construct the city's cultural identity since 1967, the year that saw the watershed riots and the inauguration of TVB.

The station's programmes, particularly the melodramas, have been a core representation of Hong Kong values and collective memories. But as audiences turn away from local television and opt for global content, will this lead to the fragmenting of Hong Kong's cultural identity?

Certainly, the digital revolution is changing the face of television. It is no longer just about the box in your living room; it has become a multi-functional and multi-purpose one-stop shop of home entertainment available on wired TV sets, smartphones, tablets and computers.

But are Hong Kong's TV policies and regulatory structure ready to embrace this change? Will Netflix in Hong Kong face a similar fate to Uber?

Hong Kong's definition of television has changed little since 1967. Both free-to-air and pay-TV are subject to broadcasting regulations. Operators are required to pay government fees for the licence to air their programmes via spectrums. They are also subject to strict advertising regulations. And although digital terrestrial broadcasting was launched in 2007, the government is further delaying the analogue switch-off date to 2020 despite 80 per cent of the city's households already have access to digital broadcasting. However, as television migrates to the internet, the current regulatory model will no longer be applicable.

Local operators, meanwhile, retain a traditional mentality. And advertisers still rely on the outdated ratings system which fails to provide accurate data for audience profiles and demographics.

TVB figures show that from 2005 to 2014, nearly a million viewers switched off from the dominant player's prime-time drama series, leaving only an average of 1.4 million viewers still watching. ATV, on the other hand, averages around 65,000 viewers. This means nearly 5.7 million people - or 80 per cent of the population - are not watching terrestrial free TV.

The internet has become the new battleground and could put another nail in the local TV industry's coffin. With a choice of programmes from all over the world, the quality of local TV productions has thus far proved inadequate. Even my mother - as a 50something housewife, apparently a target audience of TVB - ditched her local dramas long ago for Korean soaps available on the internet. TVB has been recording single-digit ratings online on average.

Ricky Wong Wai-kay has made multiple attempts to rejuvenate the city's television industry with his Hong Kong Television Network via free-to-air TV and mobile TV. But his efforts have either fallen foul of the authorities, or fallen below expectations.

A small market of 7 million is not enough to support multimillion-dollar TV productions, even with subscriptions. TV content has to target a regional, if not global, audience.

But this leads to another question: how much "Hongkongness" can be retained if our producers aim to make shows for an audience beyond the city? That remains to be answered.

While the government and older generation hold on to the Below the Lion Rock spirit stemming from the 1970s RTHK drama, the city has become more fragmented. Young people are tuning into 100Most's MostTV, a quirky internet platform operated by youngsters offering hilarious multimedia content and video clips with a sarcastic take on the city's political affairs, showbiz and social issues. Clearly, internet content is destined to further dissect the population along generational lines, and this needs to be addressed if we are to hold the city together.

Regardless of how the TV revolution pans out, the big winners will be consumers, who can enjoy high-quality home entertainment after slaving away all day to pay the bills and exorbitant rent. And that can't be bad a thing.

Vivienne Chow is a senior writer at the Post