TV transparency furore could rear its head again in 2015

Until now, two free-to-air operators had licences renewed easily - but rules of game have changed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 6:21am
UPDATED : Monday, 11 November, 2013, 6:21am

The government has avoided a political, or even constitutional, crisis with the defeat of a bid to invoke Legco's powers to compel the Executive Council to explain its decision on free-to-air television licences.

But public concerns over the matter are still there, and will remain, at least until the run-up to 2015.

Why 2015? Because that's when the 12-year licences of the two existing free-to-air television operators - Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) and Asia Television (ATV) - must be renewed. In the past, these licences have been extended almost automatically as long as they met certain investment and production requirements set by the government.

But will the rules of the game change this time?

Definitely. Because of the current saga, there will be more commercial and political wrestling when TVB and ATV submit their renewal proposals for the government to study by year's end. And how to study the market and make a proper decision will continue to haunt the government, as the whole community will be watching.

If we put aside last Wednesday's political battle between the Executive Council and the Legislative Council and come back to the issue itself, we have to ponder what we really want from a "licensed" free-to-air television market in a free economy like Hong Kong?

The government believes this means it must ensure all qualified licensees survive. Thus Ricky Wong Wai-kay's Hong Kong Television Network, which was regarded as being weaker than the other two applicants, had to be denied a licence as three new networks would mean the market was too crowded.

But to many - and especially those who oppose the government's decision - the interpretation of "licensed" apparently carries a different meaning. They think the government, being the licensor, has the duty to ensure all licensees are quality operators - and that it needs to answer public demand for more competition in our free-to-air television market. So 2015 will be another critical time for the government to do something.

Hong Kong once prided itself on being the entertainment leader in Asia, with its television dramas being exported to the mainland, Taiwan, and many Southeast Asian countries. This was especially true during the 1980s and 1990s, when the mainland first opened its doors to sate its population's huge thirst for entertainment. Both TVB and ATV produced many good shows in their heydays. "TV is the best dish to go with dinner" was a popular saying.

But the once-happy relationship between viewers and the two stations gradually soured. Many thought the dominance of TVB resulted in a lack of creativity in its programming, while the poorly financed ATV disappointed with constant reruns of imported and old shows.

Local dramas are also losing their edge on the mainland. According to the Beijing-based rating agency CSM Media Research, Hong Kong television dramas last year held a 49 per cent market share, but after many years of success, none made the top 10 list. Shows from Taiwan and Korea did, even though they only had market shares of 18 and 19 per cent, respectively. This should ring alarm bells in our industry.

There is a Chinese saying, "Hate is the other side of love". The public outcry over the licence decision, and criticism of the two current operators, could in fact show Hongkongers' love for a healthier free-to-air television industry. But the government has to realise that gone are the days when a free-to-air television licence can be automatically awarded, without convincing reasons and transparent procedures. While 2015 seems far away, the tough job starts now - for both the government, and TVB and ATV.