To say the public is fed up with the free television industry is an understatement. For decades, millions of people have had only two broadcasters to choose from. And for the past 20 years there have been just two pay TV stations. Thanks to digitalisation, dozens of channels are currently available. But the numbers still lag other world cities. Tokyo citizens have six national networks plus many regional stations. The need for more choice and competition is clear.
After more than three years, the government finally approved in principle two of them - i-Cable's Fantastic TV and PCCW's HK Television Entertainment Company. But the welcome news was overshadowed by the rejection of Ricky Wong Wai-kay's Hong Kong Television Network, seen by many as a strong contender. The refusal surprised some people. A Facebook page for Wong's bid so far has attracted some 470,000 "likes". A mass protest and a court challenge are under way.
While it awaited licence approval, Wong's company had already outdone the two eventual winners by spending HK$900 million and creating hundreds of hours of productions, some of them shown on the internet for free. Unfortunately, the rejection prompted the sacking of 320 staff. Wong and his team are entitled to a full explanation. The strong public reaction shows that people are also disappointed by the decision.
Unlike the two winners, which currently run Now TV and Cable TV, Wong's company lacks broadcasting experience and infrastructure. As commerce chief Greg So Kam-leung said, the decision was made after considering an array of factors rather than just programme quality. Wong's outspoken style also gave rise to much speculation. So denied suggestions that political considerations played a role in the decision. Further assurances on this front would be helpful.
The government said it did not rule out issuing more licences as and when appropriate. But it has yet to justify why the market, as recommended by its consultant, can only accommodate four players at most. Nor can it give a clear timetable for opening up further under a so-called gradual and orderly approach. Unless there is a clear commitment, officials risk being accused of protecting vested interests.
There can be no dispute that the public deserves better free TV entertainment. The government should closely monitor the performance of the two existing broadcasters and ensure the new players can enhance competition, quality and choice.