Now ATV has faded from Hong Kong screens, the entire industry needs some fresh thinking

Television’s glory days of the 1980s and 90s have disappeared and media-savvy audiences these days have an almost endless array of viewing options

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 April, 2016, 4:29pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 April, 2016, 1:27am

The traditional Chinese calendar measures time using a combination of signs arranged in the form of 10 heavenly stems and 12 earthly branches to calculate a full life cycle of six decades, called a jiazi. What it means is that when one reaches the age of 60, he or she has gone through the ups and downs of life and should have become smarter and wiser.

It’s supposed to be the same for a company.

Thus it saddens many, especially dedicated staff from different periods over the past decades, to see Asia Television, the world’s first Chinese-language broadcaster, going off the air just months before its 60th birthday when it would have completed a full life cycle.

But at the same time, the unfortunate fate of ATV provides rich food for thought for the future development of Hong Kong’s broadcast industry.

How and why ATV ended in such a state could be a textbook case for any business school to study

Obviously, financial woes and constant rows among shareholders which led to chaotic management and the deterioration of programme qualities contributed to the station’s untimely demise. There are also many who believe the eccentric style of ATV’s mainland investor, Wong Ching, was to blame, while some have gone a step further to conclude that money from across the border usually screws things up.

Highlighting only this mainland factor may be oversimplifying matters, although it reflects the perception of some amid the ongoing tension between the city and the mainland.

The reality is, Hong Kong also has many smart and successful mainland business people. In the case of ATV, it was more a matter of whether a mainland investor was willing to observe Hong Kong’s broadcasting regulations and market rules. As the saying goes, when in Rome, do as the Romans do.

There are also those who blame the government – from its outdated broadcast policies to its unwillingness to take timely legal action against ATV investors for failing to pay staff wages, as well as its decision to saddle the government-funded yet poorly equipped RTHK with the burden of taking over the station’s analogue channels in haste.

Trying to grab a market share up north or even overseas is easier said than done

All in all, how and why ATV ended in such a state could be a textbook case for any business school to study. What has comforted its staff a bit is the fact that ATV has become part of the collective memory of many Hongkongers, for whom the broadcaster still lives in their hearts.

On a practical level, ATV the company still exists; what has gone is its free-to-air licence. A representative of its current investor, Shandong-based businessman Si Rongbin, even boasted that ATV would start a new chapter by transforming into a satellite and internet broadcasting service, and would cultivate the mainland and even overseas markets, including countries along the “One Belt, One Road” route.

Believe it or not? So far not one of Si’s previous promises, such as injecting HK$10 billion into the dying station, or running the 2016 Miss Asia beauty pageant to give ATV a glorious send-off, has materialised.

In theory, satellite and online broadcasts are possible as they don’t need licences. But the question remains: what programmes can ATV provide in future to increasingly demanding and media-savvy audiences at home and outside Hong Kong?

It’s been reported that one remaining valuable asset of ATV is its mainland landing rights. But that was granted when ATV still had its free-to-air licence. Whether authorities across the border will soon take the landing rights back is an unknown, but the past years have seen more quality TV productions in the form of dramas and variety shows on the mainland and in neighbouring countries such as South Korea and Japan. Trying to grab a market share up north or even overseas is easier said than done.

Many are now talking about how to end the dominance of Television Broadcasts after ATV pulled the plug. But TVB itself is fighting an uphill battle as it reported its first ever profit decline this year since being listed in 1988.

With more new free-to-air TV operators entering the crowded domestic market, plus a continuous exodus of local TV talent to the mainland, it has become all the more urgent for the entire industry to have some fresh thinking and work together to regain the glory days of the 1980s and 90s. Otherwise, aiming at the mainland or overseas markets is just empty talk, if not daydreaming.

The government surely has a role to play in helping local creative industries gain better access to the mainland market? Hopefully within this life cycle.