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Critics and viewers fear for the future of Hong Kong's golden TV tradition
Once celebrated for their vibrant output, the city's TV channels are now filled with identikit dramas
Born in Mauritius, living in Toronto, Jennifer Chan says she lives a Hong Kong life - just somewhere else. A child of Hong Kong parents, she grew up gorging on the city's television, picking up colloquial Cantonese jokes and Chinese idioms from shows such as Andy Lau Tak-wah's period dramas in the 1980s to time-travel comedy A Step into the Past in 2001.
"Hong Kong TV shows had a big impact on my childhood," says the 33-year-old. "They were relaxing and comforting. They connected me with Hong Kong."
She watched during the golden era of Hong Kong television, the 1980s and 1990s, when programmes, films and Canto-pop were major cultural exports.
Today, viewers complain about the domination of Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB). The company recorded a 96 per cent share of the prime-time free-to-air TV audience, nearly 1.5 million viewers, in the first week of December. But its shows are derided for illogical plots, recycled sets and low production values.
"Over the past five to six years, TVB shows have become a joke," Chan says. "When you get older, you want something more meaningful, not something that repeats itself all the time."
This year disgruntled viewers hoped the status quo would change. Telecoms entrepreneur Ricky Wong Wai-kay proposed airing high quality dramas on his Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV). The online premiere of the crime thriller Borderline has drawn nearly 1.2 million views since its launch in June. With a fast-paced narrative and on-location filming using state-of-the-art cameras, the production quality upstaged the cookie-cutter studio output of TVB.
The Executive Council's decision in October to overlook HKTV and grant free-to-air TV licences to PCCW's Hong Kong Television Entertainment and i-Cable's Fantastic TV - existing pay-TV players - drew protests from tens of thousands of Hongkongers. Some directed their anger towards TVB, initiating a boycott and a mock funeral as the broadcaster put on a celebration for its 46th anniversary.
Critics say that despite fresh programming promised by the new licensees, the city's airwaves will continue to be clogged with news and "infotainment" such as food and travel programmes. Narrative storytelling will miss out, says Jenny Ng Pui-ying of consultancy firm Value Partners.
While HKTV planned to focus on dramas, Fantastic TV and Television Entertainment have proposed current affairs, lifestyle and reality shows. The latter's mother company, PCCW, has set up a HK$300 million fund to acquire local independent productions, but there are few available. It has completed the filming of its first series, the costume drama Empress Wei Zifu for HK$60 million, but the show is co-produced with Huace Film & TV from the mainland, suggesting that the stories will be vetted by censors.
As HKTV is pushed out of the picture, a cultural stagnation - resulting from TVB's dominance - will continue, Ng says.
"Cultural and creative industries are an important investment, without which Hong Kong can't be an international city," Ng says.
Pierre Lam, critic and lecturer at Baptist University's College of International Education, goes further: bad TV threatens the city's other creative industries.
"TVB no longer serves as a training ground for young talent because of its factory-like productions and lack of quality control," Lam says. The government's decision to deny a licence to HKTV, a company that promised to train and showcase young acting and writing talent, "also kills the future of Hong Kong's film and television industries".
Declining viewing figures
Hong Kong television's problem is not just cultural, but financial. In 2008, four out of the five top-rated TVB shows had an average audience size of more than two million. Last year, just one out of the five top-rated shows surpassed two million viewers. TVB's only rival, Asia Television (ATV), a private company, performed worse; in the first week of December the company captured just 4 per cent of viewers (64,200 viewers) according to AC Nielsen figures.
ATV's management says that the company has run a prolonged deficit, but refuses to release specific numbers. The station is routinely criticised for re-running its programmes.
TVB's picture appears to be darkening. From 2009 to 2010, TVB says the advertising revenue for its free-TV channels grew by 22 per cent - from HK$2 billion to more than HK$2.5 billion, according to its annual reports. Last year, however, its combined free-TV and pay-TV ad revenue rose by just 6 per cent, to HK$3.2 billion - a troubling slowdown.
TVB says it is willing to listen to viewers' opinions to enhance production quality, a spokeswoman says, but blames the ratings drop on a greater diversity of programmes, rather than diminishing quality. TV content is available through different platforms such as the internet, which contributes to ratings fluctuations.
The station disagrees with suggestions that its dominance has calcified the city's culture. "It is ludicrous to blame a television station for the problems," the spokeswoman says.
In an attempt to shore up flagging public support, TVB aired its annual TV awards show on Monday, with more than 931,000 viewers casting online votes. TV veteran Benz Hui Shiu-hung, who received an award for best supporting actor, says it's unfair to blame TVB for the industries woes. "If people want to boycott, they should boycott the government not TVB," he says.
TVB was founded by Run Run Shaw - creator of Shaw Brothers, Asia's largest film studio in the 1960s. The station began broadcasting in November 1967, when Hong Kong was recovering from the leftist riots and bomb attacks against colonial rule, leaving 51 dead. Early on, TVB broadcast a number of Western dramas dubbed into Cantonese, including the detective series Ironside.
One of the first programmes in Cantonese was the live variety show Enjoy Yourself Tonight, created by Robert Chua, then 21 and today one of the region's best known TV producers. The show ran for 6,613 episodes until 1994, making it one of the world's longest running live variety shows. It featured comedy segments and short series and nurtured Hong Kong's brightest stars, from Lydia "Fei-fei" Sum Tin-ha (also known as Lydia Shum) to Liza Wang Ming-chun and Chow Yun-fat.
Shows like Ironside and Enjoy Yourself Tonight promoted a new lifestyle and Western values to the local population, helping counter the influence of communist China and shaping the city's identity after the riots.
In his 1999 book Culture, Politics and Television in Hong Kong, critic Eric Ma Kit-wai wrote that in the 1960s and 1970s, Hong Kong television began to reflect a modern and prosperous lifestyle, fostering free expression and differentiating itself from the mainland, then gripped by the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.
Hong Kong's TV industry boomed in the 1970s when Rediffusion Television - which later became ATV - converted from a subscription-based cable TV model to a free-to-air TV station in 1973. Two years later, Commercial Television became the third free-to-air TV station.
Competition pushed TV stations to produce fresh output that reflected new middle-class lifestyles as Hong Kong evolved from a manufacturing economy to a financial centre. The energy fed the emergence of the city's new wave cinema in the 1980s.
When Commercial Television collapsed in 1978, Hong Kong television became a duopoly. ATV won devotees in 1980 with drama Fatherland, which earned 40 per cent of audience share.
The 1980s marked the start of TVB's dominance. The station captured the rise of Canto-pop, and many of the genre's classic songs were written for TVB dramas. The station became a platform for stars including Anita Mui Yim-fong, Alan Tam Wing-lun and Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, drawing a worldwide fan base among Chinese speakers.
Alex Pao Wai-chung, a critic and former script supervisor at TVB and HKTV, says that today's TVB dramas are irrelevant. "They don't strike a chord with today's society," Pao says.
He created several memorable TV dramas, including TVB's 2000 sitcom War of the Genders, starring comedian Dayo Wong as a lazy office assistant falling for Carol "Do Do" Cheng's lawyer.
Pao says that old shows exported Hong Kong's lifestyle and social values - prosperity, justice, rule of law - to audiences elsewhere. Mainland production houses showed interest in his old shows because "they aspire to the values in Hong Kong dramas".
Therein lies the power of television, says media scholar Justin Lewis. Lewis, professor of communication at Cardiff University's School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, argues that TV represents an important cultural policy - even more so than funding for the arts. Because most people watch TV, the medium spreads values that shape an identity shared by viewers; they become an integral part of a physical place through stories told on the glowing screen.
Undemocratic governments, Lewis says, particularly fear a diversified TV culture, which fuels creativity and inspires people to question the status quo.
"It is absolutely imperative to care about culture," Lewis says, "to make our society more interesting, democratic, diverse and dynamic."