TV licensing row shows up fickle policy, critics say
Denial of TV operation to investor Ricky Wong turns spotlight on the government's judgment and stance in opening up the market, critics say
Questions of judgment and policy consistency hung over the government as critics scoffed at what they saw as a lame explanation of why a high-profile broadcasting investor failed to secure a free-to-air television licence.
Veterans familiar with the industry are unconvinced by a minister's account on Tuesday in granting licences to i-Cable's Fantastic Television and PCCW's HK Television Entertainment (HKTVE) but not to Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV), chaired by media maverick Ricky Wong Wai-kay.
One critic suggested political undertones were at work as Wong had vowed during his 12-day reign at ATV that he would not turn the station into another CCTV, the mainland's nationwide state broadcaster.
On a radio show yesterday, Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Greg So Kam-leung said HKTV lost in terms of overall competitiveness.
So pointed to the importance of relevant experience. "We are not talking about the filming of one or two dramas, but running a television station," he said.
One marked difference between HKTV and the other two was the number of proposed channels: HKTV wanted to run 30 channels within six years of launch; Fantastic TV and HKTVE had suggested just two, he noted.
The Executive Council reached its conclusion after assessing the financial capability and programme planning of each applicant, he said.
The comments hinted that Wong could have been deemed too aggressive for sustainable development of the market.
Simon Ho Sai-hau, who sits on the Communications Authority's broadcast complaints committee, said that if 30 channels were too many, the government could ask the number to be cut.
Broadcasters commonly ran dozens of channels using shows produced externally, Ho said. As long as the station focused on one or two core channels, it would not strain finances.
Peter Lam Yuk-wah, vice-president of the Televisioners Association, said: "An investor can always hire experienced staff members to help him."
Lam questioned if the rejection was due to political reasons. "The central government may think it's hard to control him."
Political concerns aside, both veterans also pointed to government inconsistencies over liberalising the market.
As early as 1998, the government wanted to open the free-television sector to competition and emphasised that it would not limit the number of licences.
Yesterday, lawmakers got the latest government document that showed the rules of the game had changed over the years without the applicants' knowledge, which probably explained Wong's shock at his failed bid.
According to the document, a consultant had told the authority that the local market might not be able to support five players.
But the regulator was of the view that all three applicants fulfilled the financial and programming requirements and should receive approval. Market sustainability should not be a primary consideration, it said.
Both TVB and ATV opposed the recommendation and Exco, in view of their concerns, decided to introduce new operators in a "gradual and orderly approach" to minimise any adverse impact on the market, the document showed.
Lam said: "The government never informed the applicants of the new approach. In fact, it never told them what the criteria were for determining the winner. Why is it okay to have four television stations but not five?"