FANCY wielding a TV channel-changing zapper the size of a mahjong table? Plans unveiled last week to greatly expand the number of channels may lead to countless viewing options. Start with the four satellite frequencies that could deliver six channels apiece on a 60-centimetre dish. That is 24 new channels. Then there is the experiment with digital TV that could deliver another 20, maybe more. As if this were not enough, the Government also plans to force Wharf Cable to allow others to use its network to carry programmes, and let all the current telephone network providers offer TV services as well. And just to ensure these signals can be easily piped into your flat, new rules are aimed at making better use of the wiring within buildings that carry TV signals, using digital technology to make the wire carry typically 648 channels. And, for good measure, Macau is building a super-high TV tower to beam programmes to Hong Kong too. At present, more than half the households in Hong Kong have access only to the four broadcast TV stations. In 10 years' time, they could have more channels even than TV-centric societies such as the United States and Japan. But the one question that the Government was not answering when it unveiled the proposals on Thursday was: what will be the programmes? 'There will be great competition,' said Secretary for Information Technology and Broadcasting Kwong Ki-chi. 'A large number of viewers will have a wider choice.' But choice and quality are not always the same. The society that has faced the greatest upheaval on its screens is perhaps Britain. Twenty years ago, there were three nationwide TV channels and the country was widely claimed to have the best-quality TV in the world. In one epic programme, Civilisation, a learned professor occupied an hour of peak-time viewing every week for three months to chart the rise of Western civilisation from ancient Rome. Now, the keen British TV viewer has 40 or 50 channels available. Programmes include Topless Darts, and one station now has the weather report read in Norwegian by a pretty girl in a bikini. The same channel also features Tiffani's Big City Tips - a business news programme where Tiffani takes off an item of clothing after every statistic. 'In fact, there is still lots and lots of quality TV available,' says Bob Towler, head of research at Britain's Independent Television Commission, the nation's regulatory body. 'Topless darts. A bit of Norwegian. It's necessary to have that once in a while,' he adds. More scientifically, 27 years of annual surveys have shown British viewers do not perceive any sharp fall in quality, although Mr Towler admits the peak-time shows of the main broadcast stations have become 'a bit less elitist'. The debate has raged worldwide as new technologies have given unparalleled choice. In Washington DC, for instance, the viewer gets 10 free-to-air channels and maybe another 50 on cable. The cable channels go from the extreme of C-SPAN, which broadcasts all congressional and senate hearings live, no matter how dull, to channels largely devoted to wrestling. The chattering torrent of channels has led to the formation of new consumer groups trying to encourage broadcasters to produce better programmes. Viewers for Quality Television, for instance, gives awards to programmes that are reasonably well-produced and have believable characters, such as Ally McBeal and ER. 'My experience,' says president Dorothy Swanson, 'is that the more TV channels, the more diluted the quality. There just isn't enough creative talent to supply that many networks.' Hong Kong has been uniquely starved of TV. Viewers in Manila, for instance, have about 10 free-to-air broadcast channels, and the number has been growing fast as cable TV expands. However, Professor James Kenny, now at Chinese University but previously in the Philippines studying media developments, says that the dominant station has kept its market share at about 60 per cent. He says the factors which have kept the dominant station at the top will also work in favour of TVB in Hong Kong as the market expands. 'It had more money. And it had exclusive contracts with many of the stars. In the Philippines, if you have stars on your channel then people will watch it.' TVB not only collects easily the biggest slice of the $3 billion a year in local TV advertising, it also has a vast library of programmes, which is increasing by 6,000 hours a year. The problem for TVB is that the proposals issued on Thursday would leave in place restrictions that would prevent it exercising control over any other free or local pay TV service. Stephen Chan Chi-wan, TVB's programming and external affairs controller, says: 'Under the present regime we're just not allowed to do so.' This means that TVB's stars are likely to remain on TVB Jade for some years. With the Government announcing its intention to keep the free broadcast channels very tightly regulated because 'they are the most pervasive and universally accessible and exert the greatest influence on society', it appears likely that TVB Jade in 2008 might look very similar to TVB Jade in 1998 despite the massive competition. In other countries, governments have encouraged a new breed of independent production houses to provide quality TV programmes in competition with the big broadcasters. Britain's Government forced broadcasters to buy in programmes from outsiders to seed its new industry. In Canada, and in France, government takes a stake in programme production and assists producers to find international buyers for quality programming. Keiko Bang, head of Bang Productions, one of the few independent programme makers, says economics lies at the heart of good programming. 'It's very expensive to produce quality TV.' She says Hong Kong lacks the environment to produce good TV. In Los Angeles, a production firm can borrow money on the strength of a contract, while in Singapore the Government offers technical staff free training. Figures collected by Cable And Satellite Asia last year show the cost of producing good TV in Hong Kong. Standard dramas at TVB can cost $310,000 an hour or more. Top-quality pan-Asian documentary work produced for a major US channel would cost about $200,000 for 30 minutes. But when Wharf Cable was launched in the early 1990s, it was talking about overall budgets of $7,800 an hour. In Britain, stations can spend as much as $3.5 million on an hour of high-quality drama, an investment which they can more than recoup by sales, over decades, to the vast English-speaking market worldwide. 'You have to spend money to make money,' says Ms Bang. 'People think they can start with poor programmes, make some money, and then get good programmes. But you can't do that. 'You have to start with good programmes or you won't make money.' Ms Bang says that if the Government wants to give Hong Kong residents better TV, it needs to change its focus. 'People don't watch technology. They watch programmes.' The problem for any new investors is that they cannot deliver the programmes without the technology - which, in some cases, will be expensive. Theoretically, the four satellite frequencies which have been allocated to Hong Kong, for instance, provide a unique opportunity for whoever gets the licences expected to be issued next year, as each frequency can support up to eight channels. But satellite channels need a satellite. And then consumers need to pay for the equipment. Using Britain as a yardstick, each household will have to pay more than $2,000 for the set-top box by the time Hong Kong's service is launched. One factor that may make these services more viable is that they will also be accessible in southern Guangdong province. Even if people in Hong Kong are already drowning in TV, consumers elsewhere in the Pearl River Delta may be a target that encourages broadcasters to take the plunge. For digital TV, the costs in two or three years' time are expected to be about $5,000 for a small digital TV. However, it has more than just extra channels, and can offer surround-sound, high-definition laser-disc quality signals, and a cinema screen-shaped picture. Jeff Chatfield, managing director of Advent Television, which is testing digital TV in Singapore, asserts: 'Once consumers see a High Definition TV they love it and want nothing else.' They may have to: after digital TV has been operating for five years, or sooner if more than half all households have bought digital sets, the Government is to consider a switch-off date for the existing broadcasting system. Consumers who have yet to buy into the digital future will have to buy a set-top box or give up TV and find a more rewarding hobby. In fact, about the only mention of programmes in the consultation document was the pledge to keep the two English-language broadcast channels. One local media consultant says there are three 'killer applications' when it comes to pay TV: sex, sport and shopping. But in Hong Kong, sport has less attraction than in say, Australia, and shopping is more convenient as most people live near every store imaginable. This leaves just one alternative. Although they are not keen to talk about it, Hong Kong's only current pay-TV operators are making their best profits from pornography. Wharf Cable is, sources say, making about 85 per cent of its pay TV revenue from Penthouse, Playboy and other adult channels which this week offer programmes such as Japanese Highway Honeys. Hongkong Telecom's Video-on-Demand service had so many explicit photographs in its brochures, including gay sex, lesbian sex and sado-masochism, that there were calls for them to be placed in an opaque plastic bag with a warning on the cover. The opposing view, expounded by BSkyB, the British sister station of Hong Kong's STAR TV, and now offering Britons an eye-boggling 200 channels via digital satellite, is that TV risks becoming a target medium for censors, similar to magazines. However, the most likely source of super-downmarket TV is outside the Government's control. Already, countries in Europe that have Hong Kong-style laws on pornography are finding citizens picking up porn channels destined for their more liberal neighbours. According to one estimate, despite having 22 satellites overhead, this problem has yet to occur here. But the Government's consultation document admits that if someone starts beaming trash TV from the heavens it can do nothing about it except ban them from promoting or selling their reception equipment. Carrying TV signals over the Internet - at present suitable only for those with a liking for very jerky pictures indeed - is also around the corner. Already, it is possible in Hong Kong to listen to American DJs who make Albert Cheng King-hon sound like a retired vicar. The Government hopes that when Internet TV improves, 'Hong Kong will not be the only place to recognise the need for international co-operation in this respect'. The Government's Mr Kwong said he was not worried that the new channels would be stuffed with stripping housewives - a famous show created in Italy after deregulation - because 'Hong Kong has very strong laws against obscene materials'. Nevertheless, the Government is to demand that new pay-TV channels, whether they come into the home over wires, from the airwaves or from space, should have effective parental locking systems to stop children from enjoying a little too much of the new broadcasting freedom.