Lawmakers have criticised as "opaque" and "unclear" the yardsticks set by the broadcasting watchdog for the renewal of ATV and TVB's broadcasting licences next year.
Members of the Legislative Council's panel on broadcasting urged the Communications Authority to instead set clear criteria - and to recommend the government refuse a new licence if either of the free-to-air stations fails to make the grade.
Both stations have attracted controversy. TVB has been accused of taking advantage of its dominant position in the market, while cash-strapped ATV has frequently fallen foul of the watchdog - often due to allegations of interference by its mainland investor, Wong Ching. Both - but especially ATV - have faced complaints of pro-Beijing bias.
The authority was seeking lawmakers' views on the licence renewal process, which is also subject to a two-month public consultation, ending on April 3.
Its chairman, Ambrose Ho Pui-him, told the panel it would take into account the track records of the licence holders, their financial strength and public opinion before making a recommendation to the chief executive.
"We shall assess the three factors individually and then come up with an overall assessment," Ho said.
But People Power lawmaker Raymond Chan Chi-chuen, once an ATV presenter, said: "An overall assessment can be very subjective. We need a more transparent system."
League of Social Democrats chairman "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung said the watchdog should set clear criteria and make them public, so citizens could monitor its work.
"I daresay all the people of Hong Kong want ATV to fold," Leung said. "I wonder why the authority would still need to consider giving it a licence."
Others referenced the row over the last round of free-to-air television licensing decisions last year, when the government went against the watchdog's recommendation and gave new licences to only two of the three bidders: existing pay television players Now TV and Cable TV. The decision sparked huge protests.
Labour's Cyd Ho Sau-lan asked whether the station that missed out, Hong Kong Television Network, would automatically get a licence if ATV or TVB were rejected.
Ambrose Ho declined to speculate. He said the watchdog would make a recommendation on whether to renew the licences around November, but the final decision would be for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.
The authority held the last of three hearings on the renewal process in Sha Tin last night. As at previous hearings most of those who spoke criticised ATV's programming. Ho promised to consider the views raised.
The Legco panel will hold a special meeting on Saturday to listen to the views of concerned groups on licensing renewal.
Yesterday's panel meeting also endorsed a request from RTHK to retain the position of deputy director of broadcasting for the next five years to help the government-owned station prepare for its move to a new headquarters. The headquarters plan has been delayed by at least two years after another Legco panel rejected a funding request following a huge rise in costs.
Panel members also approved a HK$64.2 million plan to allow RTHK to extend the reach of its digital terrestrial television stations to 99 per cent of homes.