Ultimately, digital broadcaster DBC’s demise is down to its timid programming

Albert Cheng says a fear of rocking the boat with bold content, rather than inadequate government support, is the real reason why the broadcaster is folding

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 4:06pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 11 August, 2016, 6:06pm

Digital Broadcasting Corporation (DBC), which I founded almost single-handedly over five years ago, has died a sudden death. It announced on Monday that it would hand back its digital audio broadcasting licence to the authorities seven years ahead of schedule.

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Its demise did not come as a surprise, although it was earlier than I had expected. Chief executive officer Loh Chan attributed the failure to the government’s unfair broadcasting policy. He noted that cars imported into Hong Kong were not ready for digital reception, and revealed that the company’s request for FM bands had been rejected by the authorities.

Loh, a veteran media practitioner, has a point. After all, drivers are the largest sector of radio listeners. The DBC story would have had a very different ending if the government had taken a more active role in urging manufacturers and importers to upgrade their car radios. The Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, led by Greg So Kam-leung, is largely to blame for failing to offer an environment for digital radio broadcasters to compete on an equal footing.

Digital broadcasting in Hong Kong also suffers from poor indoor reception in many places throughout the territory due to a lack of basic infrastructure. This has severely dampened consumer interest in acquiring a digital radio.

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For one, the government has no plans to extend digital radio coverage from cross-harbour tunnels to along the MTR, which carries over five million commuters a day. And, unlike the case of digital television, the government is not prepared to impose a deadline to require a switch of all analogue services to the digital format. There is thus no sense of urgency to promote digital radio, even though prices have dropped significantly in the past few years.

Given the social mood, the most desired content now is honest, critical and independent comment on Leung Chun-ying and his government

In the final analysis, this metropolis of over seven million residents has been underserved by its three analogue broadcasters – RTHK, Commercial Radio and Metro Broadcast. They have already used up the FM frequency bands, so digital radio broadcasting is the only natural way to improve programme choice.

It was a logical decision for the authorities to open up the skies. DBC was given seven of the 18 digital channels, RTHK got five, while Metro Broadcast and Phoenix URadio were each assigned three.

RTHK has invested very little in new content, simply providing simulcasts of its existing AM programmes on three of its channels, and using the other two to relay the BBC World Service and China National Radio (Hong Kong edition). With its mainland connections, URadio thought it could open a new market of Putonghua listeners in Hong Kong. That turned out to be wishful thinking. It could not survive even after the government had waived its licence fees. Meanwhile, Metro Broadcast’s three digital channels are nothing more than an appendage to its FM service.

In a nutshell, it was up to DBC to come up with new ideas and services on the digital platform.

Even if it had been granted an additional FM channel, DBC would still have struggled. Just look at Metro Broadcast. With both FM and digital channels at its disposal, it still lags painfully behind RTHK and Commercial Radio.

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The initial DBC investors were aware of these and other hurdles from the inception but we did not have a chance to carry out our plans because of politics. The rest is history.

Incumbent chairman Bill Wong Cho-bau told Ming Pao that the operation had accrued a loss of over HK$600 million. He seems eager to create the impression that he had invested enough and needs to cut his losses. But instead of investing in content and innovative ideas, he opted for more expensive office space.

The real cause of DBC’s death is that it had been run as a traditional radio operation that does not want to rock the boat. As the old adage goes, “content is king”. Given the prevalent social mood, the most desired content now is honest, critical and independent comment on Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his government. I know it. And Wong knows it, though he seemingly wasn’t prepared to act on it.

Albert Cheng is the founder, ex-shareholder and ex-chairman of DBC