Hong Kong’s digital radio is fading away as watchdog fails to put listeners’ interests first

Albert Cheng says the broadcasting regulator is not fulfilling its obligations to enforce the terms and conditions that operators agreed to for their licences

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 November, 2015, 4:36pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 November, 2015, 4:36pm

Digital radio broadcasting was introduced in Hong Kong in early 2012. In less than four years, the station operators have either abandoned ship or are about to.

Phoenix U Radio wrote to the secretary for commerce and economic development in September to surrender its sound broadcasting licence, saying it “found no prospect of making its business model commercially viable”. The station was allowed to terminate its service from November 7.

According to its licensing conditions, Phoenix U Radio was obliged to run three channels. It had managed to launch only two. The deadline for launching a third channel had been deferred twice.

The authority is meant to be the guardian of the airwaves, which are a finite and thus precious public resource

Another commercial station, Digital Broadcasting Corporation (DBC), is also in trouble. Sixty of its 200 employees, mostly from the news department, were laid off last month after the Communications Authority agreed to let the station downsize its news service.

It has already allowed DBC to deviate from the requirements on channel genre, programme mix and number of hours of station-produced and first-run programmes on each channel.

These developments have raised grave concerns about the enforcement policies of both the authority and the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau behind it. Instead of forcing operators to honour their undertaking to invest in the stations, the regulators have sat back and allowed the stations to fade away.

I led DBC’s application for a licence and can speak from experience. The application submission was as thick as a phone directory, detailing how the company would meet the four major licensing criteria.

First, the applicant must have a sound financial background. That was why we lined up a group of wealthy dignitaries as investors, for whom an investment commitment of HK$600 million in the first six years would hardly be a problem.

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The second criterion was on programming. DBC recruited not only elite news and broadcasting personnel, but also experts in mobile technology. The plan was to make best use of the digital radio licence to offer supplementary text, graphic and video services.

The third criterion was management competence. The professional team we had assembled aside, my partner Morris Ho Kwok-fail and I are both media industry veterans.

The last criterion was technological capability. The company was a pioneer in this regard and was well equipped to make an impact on the broadcasting industry.

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Under the licensing terms, DBC has to provide seven channels of specified programme genres round the clock. The programming was a rich mix of Chinese and English songs, traditional Cantonese opera, news and financial updates, education information, as well as content for ethnic minorities.

Ho and I had a major disagreement with other shareholders and left. But DBC’s licensing terms should not be affected by any changes to its shareholding arrangements.

DBC’s management decided to scale back services even before it had fulfilled its commitment to invest HK$600 million in its first six years of operation. Instead of pushing investors to inject funding to maintain the expected standards, the Communications Authority has allowed it to slash its programmes.

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The authority has demanded that the station submit a revised business plan as part of the licence review exercise in 2017. It appears that investors are more interested in an exit plan than any initiative to keep the station afloat. Authority officials are either fooling themselves or the public.

If things continue this way, DBC may well end up in a sorry state, similar to that of ATV.

The authority is meant to be the guardian of the airwaves, which are a finite and thus precious public resource. Broadcasters are assigned the frequency bands because they have the financial power to make a long-term commitment in the first place.

Unfortunately, our regulators seem to care little about protecting the interests of the audience.

Albert Cheng King-hon is a political commentator. taipan@albertcheng.hk