Ricky Wong's dream of running television station ends in rejection

Ricky Wong's bid for a free-to-air station ends in anger and sadness, but industry experts say he never stood a chance against established players

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 October, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 October, 2013, 5:02pm

Ricky Wong Wai-kay gambled his telecommunications empire on a four-year quest to become a player in the free-to-air television industry.

He won widespread public support, but saw his dream scuppered - at least for now - by a secretive government decision.

Wong's Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV) was the highest-profile of the three applicants for a free-to-air licence and the only one to miss out.

By last night, more than 240,000 fans had signed a petition on Facebook demanding Wong get a licence.

An insider at Wong's station said last night the company got the phone call informing it of the decision only 15 minutes before a government press conference.

No reasons were given and staff were "upset and angry".

But some industry experts said the decision to favour PCCW and i-Cable, established players in the pay television arena, was understandable.

"The two new licensees are existing players owned by two large corporations," said Shu Kei, dean of film and television at the Academy for Performing Arts.

"So licences are given to big corporations instead of an independent player.

"If you have to talk about sustainability, how can an independent individual compete with these large conglomerates?"

The failure to provide an adequate explanation for the decision was the government's biggest failing, said Professor Anthony Fung Ying-him, director of Chinese University's school of journalism and communication.

"A government does not have to make decisions to please the public, but it didn't even try to communicate with the public," Fung said.

Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung said the decision, made by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and the Executive Council, was based on "a basket of criteria" including programming planning, technical factors, investment and public opinion.

But Fung said the failure to offer more information - or to reveal the details of a consultancy report which suggested that the city could not sustain five free-to-air stations - would erode public trust in the administration.

"Unlike i-Cable and PCCW, Ricky is a new player in the field, but now, licences are granted to existing players," said Fung.

"Issuing licences to i-Cable and PCCW won't change the media ecology."

The fact that i-Cable is controlled by property developer Wharf, while PCCW is run by Richard Li Tzar-kai, son of tycoon Li Ka-shing, might lead the public to question whether the government favoured only the well-connected, Fung added.

"Does it mean individuals don't have a chance?" Fung asked. "Wong demonstrated his determination to make a difference in Hong Kong's television industry, but the other competitors didn't do much.

"To the general public, it appeared there was a back door for those who wanted to get a licence and who run public utilities." Wong first applied to run a free-to-air station - allegedly with the government's blessing - in early 2010 after returning to City Telecom, the company he founded, following an ill-fated 12-day stint in charge of ATV in 2008.

Such was his commitment to the television dream that Wong last year sold City's telecommunications assets to a company backed by British firm CVC Capital Partners for HK$5 billion.

He pledged to spend HK$1 billion on original content and started work on an HK$800 million multimedia centre at the Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate.

HKTV promised two channels showing its own content, each featuring up to three hours of locally produced prime-time programmes every day, including current affairs and entertainment shows.

Wong focused on producing drama, an area he described as the pillar of any television station.

He set about poaching talent from the industry's dominant player TVB - ranging from on-screen stars to producers. It is understood that he managed to recruit almost half of TVB's scriptwriting team. He eventually landed 200 performers and 500 backstage and supporting staff.

Some of the station's stars took to social media last night to back their boss. Actress Meiki Wong said she had done her best to support the bid, but was worried the failure might reduce her profile and cost her valuable endorsements. Actor Ai Wai said he still believed in Ricky Wong.

Already, HK$300 million has been spent on producing programmes, with an average of HK$1 million per drama episode.

The network has about 150 hours of programming ready to go - just as soon as it finds a place to broadcast them. The delay has prompted Wong to become more vocal - and innovative.

He premiered the first episode of crime thriller Borderline online in June, attracting 500,000 hits and praise from viewers.

Industry insiders are speculating that Wong may show more of his dramas online. He may also attempt to sell them overseas, and HKTV showed off some of its products to buyers at the Filmart festival in March.

Wong may also turn to the courts. While there is no right of appeal, legal scholar Eric Cheung Tat-ming said Wong may seek a judicial review of the decision if irregularities could be found in the decision-making process.

These could be due to the government acting beyond the limit of the law or failing to take into account relevant factors.

The decision has also prompted speculation that Wong could bid for ATV, though Wong has previously ruled out buying the troubled broadcaster.

Another opportunity comes in 2015, when the two existing free-to-air licences come up for renewal. The shareholder disputes, financial difficulties and regulatory infringements that have afflicted ATV have called its licence renewal into question.

But for now, television insiders simply want answers as to why Wong was rejected.

"No one gets to see the consultancy report," said Peter Lam Yuk-wah, vice-president of the industry body the Hong Kong Televisioners Association.

"The government must publicise the report to convince us that it made the right decision."

Additional reporting by Thomas Chan


The Long Saga

May to August 2009 Broadcasting Authority consults public during midterm review of TVB and ATV's 12-year free television licences, which will expire in 2015

December 2009 City Telecom, chaired by Ricky Wong Wai-kay, applies for a licence and says his station will be called Hong Kong Television Network

January 2010 i-Cable's Fantastic Television (Fantastic TV) applies for licence

March 2010 PCCW's HK Television Entertainment applies for licence

July to September 2010 Authority consults public on issuing licences

May 2011 ATV questions the legality of new licences

July 2011 Authority recommends that Exco approves all three applications as they meet requirements laid out in Broadcasting Ordinance

September 2011 HKTV poaches 50 production staff, including directors, scriptwriters and producers, from TVB

November 2012 ATV investor Wong Ching dances at the Legco complex in protest against new licences. Legco passes motion supporting the issuing of licences

January 2013 TVB applies for judicial review of authority's recommendation to Exco

May 2013 Court of First Instance rejects TVB's application

September 2013 Communications Authority, formerly Broadcasting Authority, fines TVB HK$900,000 for abusing market dominance

October 2013 TVB denies banning stars from speaking Cantonese when appearing on rival channels

Johnny Tam