One of the leading pay television operators, Cable TV, says it wants to start a third free-to-air station, amid a stream of public criticism recently against the two current broadcasters.
But the idea can only become reality if the government relaxes its cross-media-ownership rules, or the Executive Council waives the restriction on public interest grounds. The Broadcasting Ordinance prohibits a pay television licensee from controlling a free-television licence holder, and vice versa.
From last month, the Broadcasting Authority has held several public hearings to gauge views as part of the mid-term review of the licences of TVB and ATV, during which members of the public have demanded more choice of free services.
Academics said that the two free television licensees should face greater competition and improve programming amid public dissatisfaction with their performance.
'TVB can have pay TV services but pay TV operators cannot do free-to-air,' To Yiu-ming, an assistant professor of journalism at Baptist University, said in an RTHK forum last month. 'Why not?
'I think pay TV operators can just repackage some of their content for free-to-air broadcasts.'
Cable TV vice-president for external affairs Garmen Chan Ka-yiu said the company's interest in the free-television market had been growing for a long time, and suggested that it was 'capable and prepared to start offering a service to more than two million households'.
The operator transmits its signals from its own cable network, which already can reach more than 95 per cent of households in the city, he said. The opportunity to enter the free-television market was there, he said, and 'all that is needed is a free-TV licence'. 'We are ready, from programme production to network infrastructure,' he said. 'It now depends on whether the government has the same intent as we do.'
Cable TV said TVB had been given an exemption from the broadcasting rules to operate the pay television service TVB Pay Vision from 2000. 'It is obvious that the regulatory regime favours the major stakeholders in the free-TV market,' a Cable TV spokesman said. 'We cannot comprehend that biased attitude.'
The spokesman added that the city had long had three free radio stations, and said that the government should introduce more free-television competition.
TVB general manager Stephen Chan Chi-wan said that the free- services broadcaster always welcomed competition.
'But all players should follow the same set of rules and regulations. In other words, [competition] must be fair,' he said.
Mr Chan insisted that the current regulatory regime had not favoured TVB, saying that the company's investment in pay television was 'in compliance with the current regime'.
Veteran broadcaster Albert Cheng King-hon said he believed that Cable TV was trying to put pressure on the government for the company's own interests. 'It is very clear that Cable TV would violate the cross-media-ownership restriction if it gets a free TV licence,' said Mr Cheng, who is now a programme host for pay television operator Now Broadband TV.
He said a lot of businessmen in the city would be interested in setting up free-to-air television stations.
'Unless the Hong Kong government is willing to open the public airwaves to allow more free TV stations to set up in the city, Cable TV's suggestion is impossible,' he said.
A government spokeswoman said it had not received any such application for a domestic free-television licence by a pay television licensee.