Time for Hong Kong to make its broadcast policy a higher priority
Addressing the struggles of the industry could create more social harmony in city
About 10 minutes – that was all it took to decide the fate of one of Hong Kong’s key pay TV stations and more than 2,000 staff caught up in its struggle for survival.
And that was how property tycoon Henry Cheng Kar-shun, chairman of New World Development, was convinced into a partnership with another billionaire, David Chiu Tat-cheong, and two other shareholders, to save i-Cable Communications.
That kind of speed can hardly be expected of government policymaking. Understandably there are always reasons for prudence, but the approach does not necessarily have to be passive. Unfortunately, this seems to be the case in Hong Kong’s broadcast policy.
A thorough review of the city’s broadcasting regulations has never been a government priority all these years, as there have always been more urgent political fires to fight. However, on the other hand, the obsession with opening up the market to more competition has driven the government into the political correctness of continuing to issue new licences, especially in promoting digital broadcasting. And now we have a problem.
One big question: are there enough quality products for the public? When it is so easy to blame the proliferation of online platforms for the continuous decline of TV and radio ratings, there is a practical matter to contemplate here. That is, with a limited market and talent pool, do more licences guarantee more and better locally produced programmes that require further investment, or quite the opposite?
For now, the employees of one of the city’s leading pay TV stations, including its well-recognised newsroom staff, may take a moment to breathe easier. But where is the future of TV headed, or the entire media industry, for that matter, in these difficult times?
The city’s top officials, including incoming chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, have all expressed concerns on various occasions, but when it comes to facilitating a healthier environment for Hong Kong’s future development, the government’s to-do list seems always full of everything else it considers more important or urgent.
The white knight that threw i-Cable a last-minute lifeline, the Forever Top consortium, proposed a HK$1 billion equity injection, and to keep downsizing to a one-off 10 per cent. Its current chairman, Stephen Ng Tin-hoi, revealed that about 180 staff had already left over the past year, assuring those remaining that they “should be safe for now”.
Pay TV is widely regarded as a business that is not presented with a promising future in Hong Kong in this digital era. What has attracted Forever Top, in fact, is the free-TV licence that the government granted to i-Cable last year.
Working in the TV business means burning cash, so the white knight’s cautious HK$700 million in the first phase of investment has raised concerns as to how it will transform an ailing enterprise.
Chiu explained that he and his partners were planning a combined internet TV model for the future of i-Cable. The government currently imposes strict licensing requirements for both pay and free TV, especially over matters such as investors’ financial qualifications, but there are no such restrictions for internet broadcasters, allowing them a low entry threshold.
This explains why online video content providers such as Netflix and LeTV, now known as Le.com, have been able to enter the local market so quickly.
The need for an overhaul of the broadcast industry may diminish when competing with other political hot potatoes on the government’s plate, but addressing it can work to the administration’s advantage in its quest to create a more harmonious social environment.
It is not only a matter of job security for many professionals in the industry; it can also be a political time bomb, as was the case when the government refused to grant a free-to-air TV licence to maverick businessman Ricky Wong Wai-kay for his Hong Kong Television Network back in 2013.
Handling the broadcast sector is never easy. New thinking is needed in the next administration for a timely review of existing rules so as to enable a more flexible business environment for the industry.
If only it could be fixed in 10 minutes.