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Netflix in Hong Kong

Analysis: Will Netflix change Hong Kong viewing habits? TV addicts are already split between HKTV, TVMost, ViuTV and LeTV

Content that doesn’t appeal to Hong Kong Chinese, free downloads and, for some, spotty internet service are factors working against mass uptake for American online broadcaster’s service

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 January, 2016, 5:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 18 January, 2016, 7:23pm

The January 7 arrival of Netflix can account for many a bleary eye given how many of us have been bingeing on its free content during the one-month trial period. But the majority of Hong Kong’s population have not been staying up late watching Jessica Jones marathons, or anything else.

Most local Chinese people have never heard of the American company and the availability of Netflix in Hong Kong means as much to them as the birth of HKTV last year did to non-Chinese speakers.

Ricky Wong’s HKTV was an audacious challenge to the insipid offerings by the two terrestrial operators, TVB and ATV, the latter about to lose its free-to-air licence in April.

For a while, HKTV produced original drama such as The Election, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist of Hong Kong’s political and social tensions. But the government’s controversial decision to deny it a free-to-air licence has dampened Wong’s media ambition, and he has switched his focus to expanding his online shopping mall.

New contenders are stepping into the breach. Viu TV, launched in October 2015 by PCCW, is still limited to streaming Korean television programmes via its app to subscribers in Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia. But its decision to provide live coverage of web channel TV Most’s extremely funny, fiercely anti-establishment music awards ceremony on January 11 has been a public relations coup ahead of the April launch of its local free-to-air service. It has promised more original Cantonese content then, to be followed by an English channel a year later.

There’s also Le TV, the mainland Chinese company that paid a whopping US$400 million for the rights to show English Premier League soccer matches in Hong Kong (a more recent deal allows it to show the 2018 FIFA World Cup in the city as well). It also offers a big library of multilingual content via its set-top box or smart TV.

So is Netflix already making an impact on our TV viewing habits? We asked four television addicts their views about what having more choice of what to see means to them.

Cherrie Lau is a self-styled kong nui, or Hong Kong girl, who loves South Korean variety shows. She works at the Department of Justice during the day, and relaxes in the evenings by watching light entertainment from South Korea. She uses a Chinese app called 1kxun, developed by Shanghai Truecolor, that gives free access to Chinese-, Korean- and English-language television shows.

“I watch on my phone and on my tablet computer. My favourites are Korean variety shows such as Running Man, featuring big stars like Kim Jong-kook, and The Return of Superman. The app allows you to download the programmes so you can watch them offline. It also has pretty good Chinese subtitles, though in simplified Chinese only,” she says.

Like most of her friends in Hong Kong, she rarely watches Western television programmes. “1kxun does have some, but the last one I watched was Sex and the City. I am not really following the new shows,” she says.

Unusually for someone in her late 20s, Lau still watches TVB Jade, the main Cantonese free-to-air station, “though I tend to watch it using its on-demand MyTV function. I tune in regularly for the long-running daily soap, Come Home Love, especially since the reintroduction of the Ma family that were in the original series,” she says.

Lau sees no reason to pay for content. “I’m not particularly interested in Netflix. I don’t know the shows and it costs money,” she says. She will definitely check out Viu TV, however, since it offers free, up-to-date Korean shows.

Adam Khemiri lives on Lamma Island and is fed up with how hard it is to watch English Premier League soccer.

A sales manager at a software company, Khemiri suffers from a slow internet connection like all Lamma residents restricted to an out-of-date PCCW backbone. But that hasn’t stopped the 37-year-old trying a few television delivery options over the years, including Netflix.

“I used a US Netflix account with a virtual private network before. A lot of people didn’t know this but, unlike some international content streaming sites, Netflix US allowed you to pay with a non-US credit card even before it went global. But now I’ve switched to a Hong Kong account so I don’t need to use it with VPN,” he says. (Netflix announced last week that subscribers would no longer be able to use proxies to watch programmes not available in the city.)

While some users are dismayed by the limited library available to Hong Kong subscribers – top shows such as House of Cards and Sherlock are missing – Khemiri has still found plenty he wants to watch.

“Yes, there are shows that are not available here but how much television can you watch anyway? There’s still enough to last you quite a while,” he says. His favourite shows are Marvel’s Daredevil and Marvel’s Jessica Jones, while his wife tends to watch more comedies.

Like most soccer fans, however, Khemiri’s main reason for watching television is to catch live English Premier League matches – and he doesn’t do that at home any more.

“I cancelled my Now TV subscription when they lost the football rights to Cable TV, which then went back to Now TV and have now been bought by Le TV. If I follow the sports at home, it means having to buy out my contract regularly when my provider loses the football. These days, I go to a public place where they show matches,” he says.

He has also used Apple TV in the past but found its library relatively limited. “Also, I found that if I was going to buy a good movie, I may as well just get a Blu-ray disc. Once Apple TV brings 3D content to Hong Kong, I’ll have another look at it,” he says. He has no aerial so he never watches local terrestrial television.

Neerja Sujanani is a businesswoman and mother of two teenage boys. Though not strictly a telly fanatic, she sometimes curls up on the sofa with her family for the big award shows, or for soccer.

“We subscribe to Now TV for its sports channel. I also use it for CNN and BBC. I watch it in the morning to get all the international news. The other programmes we watch are the award shows, like the Oscars,” she says.

Her sons, who are aged 11 and 16, thinks she’s old school. “They know how to watch live matches on their laptop. And they download, for free, all the latest U.S. television shows, like last night’s episode of The Good Wife and How to Get Away with Murder,” she says.

Her household has four iPhones and four laptops running on one rather slow Wi-fi connection, so she will only be interested in Netflix if the quality of the streaming is not affected by her household’s heavy data consumption.

The 42-year-old gave up on terrestrial television 10 years ago. “We used to turn on the evening news every day but then we discovered you get all the news online anyway,” she says.

Lam Lan-ieng has never heard of Netflix. The 68-year-old caretaker spends most of her free time in the morning and late evening watching Korean dramas she bought from her favourite DVD shop in Tsuen Wan.

“I watch ATV Home because of the 1980s dramas series it airs in the morning but I don’t watch TVB much ... their dramas don’t appeal to my taste,” she says.“I’m addicted to Korean dramas, though, and I have enough discs in the house to open my own shop. I like dramas about families, the triads, and the supernatural.”

Her latest favourite is a Chinese production called The Lady and the Liar, a 1930s period drama about a con artist who assumes the identity of a rich girl who has lost her memory.

“My 26-year-old son – he lives with me – watches TV shows on his computer. I don’t know anything about downloading because no one has taught me,” says Lam, who also follows some of the Japanese drama series. “But I have enough to watch as it is. On weekends, I also tune into the local English channels, I watch these overseas programmes on Nicam.”