My Take

Hong Kong’s TV industry is facing an existential crisis

The government should deregulate the market, overhaul hopelessly outdated restrictions on content and end its ban on cross-media ownership

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 March, 2017, 1:41am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 March, 2017, 1:41am

People have long fretted about the availability and free flow of information being under threat from government censorship. As it turns out, they are right to worry, but wrong about the nature and sources of the threat. At least that’s the case when it comes to the broadcasting industry.

Myopic commercial operators, incompetent regulators and policymakers, shrinking markets and shifting audience tastes and habits, and disruptive technologies – these are the real threats that have contributed to the death by a thousand cuts of the industry.

The latest casualty is i-Cable. The city’s oldest pay TV station may fold as early as June after parent company Wharf said it was giving up on the loss-making pay TV and internet service provider. Its news service has been a constant and reliable source on current affairs for almost a quarter of a century. Despite a desperate offer to sell, Wharf has yet to find a buyer.

This comes after TVB’s decision to give up its pay TV licence eight years ahead of expiry. Asia Television, the world’s oldest Chinese-language broadcaster, went under in May last year, after 59 years. Meanwhile, on the digital broadcasting front, Metro Radio and Digital Broadcasting Corporation – and before them, Phoenix U Radio in 2015 – have all thrown in the towel. The i-Cable debacle is especially embarrassing for Greg So Kam-leung, secretary for commerce and economic development.

Easing regulations could help TV firms stay ahead of the game

The government had just renewed in December i-Cable’s licence for 12 years to 2029, which requires HK$3.4 billion in investment over six years. The station’s affiliate, Fantastic TV, only obtained its licence in May last year. What will happen to Fantastic TV is anyone’s guess.

The irony is that the government controversially rejected HKTV’s application for a territorial broadcasting licence in 2013 while granting two affiliate licences to i-Cable and NOW TV. So justified the decisions by citing i-Cable’s financial commitment and stability.

But one reason i-Cable has been under so much pressure is because Hong Kong Broadband Network, a sister company of HKTV, has been competing with its broadband business with low-fee packages for subscribers.

The next government must realise the industry is in an existential crisis. It needs to consider deregulating the market and overhauling its hopelessly outdated restrictions on content, advertising, broadcasting time slots and languages; and its ban on cross-media ownership.

Otherwise, it’s game over.