New free-to-air TV licences will bring variety to viewing
More channels allow for better quality political debate and that can only be good for the city
I was in Guangzhou last week, taking a taxi to meet some friends. The driver, noticing that I was from Hong Kong, started to complain.
"I used to watch Hong Kong TV programmes," he said. "You know, Guangzhou people just loved whatever was shown on Hong Kong channels. But not anymore. Now, we have hundreds of channels available here. I only watch Hong Kong news sometimes, but from time to time broadcasts are blocked because they touch on politically sensitive issues that authorities here don't like.
"Excuse me if I'm too blunt," he added. "Hong Kong TV programmes no longer appeal to me." Then he recommended I watch mainland TV dramas and told me where to get some cheap DVDs.
I couldn't help feeling embarrassed. The taxi driver was right, at least about one thing. Gone were those days when viewers in the Pearl River Delta defied officials by setting up special antennae to receive TV from this side of the border.
Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong, during the past week or so, speculation spread that the Executive Council had finally come to a consensus about handing out new free-to-air TV licences. The remaining issues are when and how many licences should be awarded to the three applicants: i-Cable Communications, PCCW and City Telecom.
Informed sources revealed that, after careful study, the government has determined it was better to follow public sentiment which favoured competition, rather than hold up the applications and be accused of doing so for political considerations. But this won't happen as quickly as people expect because the big headache will be in picking who will be granted the first licence.
Critics have said that the decline in quality of Hong Kong TV programmes was the natural result of a lack of competition, with Television Broadcast Limited (TVB) dominating the market. TVB never accepted this argument, claiming that only by constant effort had it been able to keep its ratings high for decades.
Ironically, while many viewers keep complaining about TVB's programmes, they stay tuned to its channels. The classic joke was that even if it only showed a colour signal test pattern on all stations, TVB would still be the sure winner. No one can be sure that new competitors in the market will guarantee better quality programmes. But certainly more licences means a proliferation of channels, which will need more content.
One dilemma facing the government is how many of the potential new programmes will touch on politics? After all, producing political talk shows or forums is more cost-effective than making dramas or variety shows. With the 2017 universal suffrage deadline rapidly approaching, it is understood that neither Beijing nor the government want to see an explosion of political TV shows, worrying that this might further intensify the already very noisy political rows in Hong Kong.
That concern had been regarded as the main reason for the delay in issuing more licences. But, the official line puts the blame for the delay on the judicial reviews filed by TVB and another free-TV operator, Asia Television, against the issuance of more free-to-air licences.
The crux of the issue is, with or without any new licences, political voices won't be weakened in the coming years, not only because universal suffrage means more debates, but also because of the fast development and penetration of new media. That is not something to be feared but rather what any government needs to face.
Quality political debates, not mere sensational quarrels, make good television, too. Maybe even something a jaded Guangzhou taxi driver might want to watch.