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ATV - Asia Television Limited

Wong Ching, the leading man in ATV's sorry drama

He arrived with big ambitions to transform the station, but Wong Ching's five years as the power behind the scenes have been a total disaster

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 March, 2015, 11:55pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 March, 2015, 4:54am

"Long Live ATV" was the slogan Wong Ching chanted at his press conference when he took over Asia Television in 2010.

It would turn out to be reversely prophetic over the next five years, as the broadcaster found itself on the verge of collapse with the previously unknown 51-year-old mainland businessman at the helm.

He came in with a promise to end ATV's financial woes and transform it into "Asia's CNN" and the "conscience of Hong Kong", but he's now leaving the station in limbo - "with its reputation in tatters and employees eternally embarrassed", as a senior staffer put it.

"I thought Wong was going to bring ATV a new beginning when he joined," says award-winning actress Paw Hee-ching, one of many veterans, who left the station two years ago. "Now I can't believe he's the one who might put the final nail in ATV's coffin."

The company was mired in a bitter financial dispute between its then main shareholders, local businessman Payson Cha Mou-sing and Taiwanese snack tycoon Tsai Eng-meng, when Wong first appeared on the scene.

He was an obscure figure then, also known as Wang Zheng, chairman of Shenzhen-listed property company Rongfeng Holding Group, and reportedly stepson of Shu Tong, Shandong party chief in the 1950s.

His venture into Hong Kong's television business began with a HK$4 billion offer to take over the dominant TVB, but he ended up settling for the underdog instead.

Against the wishes of Tsai, who controls 47.58 per cent of ATV through Antenna, a company he co-owns with Payson Cha and his brother Johnson Cha Mou-daid, the rest of the shareholders - Panfair, owned by the Cha brothers, Dragon Viceroy and China Light - agreed to sell a 52.42 per cent stake to Wong in 2010.

Wong began trumpeting his ambitious plans for ATV even before the deal was closed and approved by the then Broadcasting Authority, the media watchdog. "ATV needs to find its new direction," he declared in March 2010.

He promised a television station that would be Asia's answer to CNN and the "conscience of Hong Kong". He also planted four of his relatives on the 10-member board of ATV, while describing himself as a "volunteer" behind the scenes.

Wong's assumption of ATV's leadership while projecting himself as a mere "investor" confused staff and did not impress Tsai, who applied for an injunction to lock the deal. His attempt failed in court in May 2010.

A month later the application for the change of shareholders was filed with the Broadcasting Authority, now the Communications Authority. Wong's relative, Wong Ben-koon, chairman of listed company Prosperity International Holdings, became the major shareholder with a 52.42 per cent stake.

This was seen as a bid to bypass restrictions against foreign ownership of local broadcasters as Wong Ching was not appointed to the ATV board and came to be officially known as a "major investor". The government chose to recognise only what was on paper, and ignored the widely known fact that Wong had effectively become the new boss - although this was against the rules.

It was all downhill from there.

First came the suspension of then-CEO Nancy Hu, who was appointed by Tsai less than a year before Wong entered the game. The Tsai camp was ousted by Wong, who put his cousin James Shing Pan-yu in the executive director's seat.

Staff had to adjust to a new management style, which included frequent tours of the newsroom at ATV's Tai Po headquarters by groups of "VIPs" from the mainland, who had to be entertained by artistes.

In what is seen as his first fatal mistake, Wong raised ATV's advertising rates fourfold, hoping to bring in quick, hard cash. It didn't work. Already unimpressed by the station's constantly low ratings, ATV 's diminishing pool of advertisers dried up quickly.

Wong also tried to shift ATV's programme focus to news, politics and current affairs talk shows while axing drama productions, traditionally the main draw for advertisers. His idea of bringing in sponsors for financial news programmes also rang alarm bells about editorial independence. According to Tsai's camp, there were few board meetings and they were kept in the dark about ATV's affairs.

ATV's reputation under Wong's leadership suffered a crippling blow in July 2011, when the station wrongly reported the death of former president Jiang Zemin . The fiasco made international headlines and earned ATV relentless ridicule on the home front. The station was fined HK$300,000 while the Communications Authority launched an inquiry into Wong's role as the erroneous report was widely sourced to him. In the end, senior vice-president Kwong Hoi-ying admitted responsibility, but many were convinced he took the fall for Wong.

Another low point came in September 2012, when former executive director Louie King-bun's editorial show, ATV Focus, racked up more than 40,000 complaints after he criticised pupils fighting the introduction of national education.

By then Wong had become something of a public hate figure and target of ridicule in Hong Kong. He gave his detractors more ammunition when in November 2012 he led his artistes in a bizarre protest at government headquarters against the issuing of new free-television licences that would threaten ATV's survival. The city was hugely amused while ATV staff were mortified by images of Wong imitating the "Gangnam-style" dance that was the rage at the time. It was broadcast live, earning ATV another round of complaints.

The government started putting its foot down, and the Communications Authority fined the broadcaster a record HK$1 million after concluding that Wong Ching had effectively been interfering in the station's management through his cousin, Shing, who was forced to quit.

But the worst was to come. Last year the court ruled in favour of Tsai that Wong was the man behind the mess, and appointed two Deloitte accountants as the station's managers to find a "white knight" for ATV. Their task would be to sell a 10.75 per cent stake from Wong Ben-koon so that Wong Ching would lose control of the station.

That apparently sapped whatever was left of Wong's commitment to ATV, and he stopped pumping money into the station. He claimed he had already fulfilled his "historic mission" by investing HK$2 billion in ATV.

Starting in July, ATV began delaying staff salaries. The Labour Department has been taking ATV to court over its repeated failure to pay wages on time.

The final chapter has yet to be unveiled, but regardless of how it plays out, Wong will not face any official punishment. On paper, he's been hands off and is not responsible for the pay fiasco. Executive director Ip Ka-po and news chief Lau Lan-cheong are effectively taking the fall, although both are paid employees who don't control the money.

Staff are taking comfort from the fact that Wong will lose most of the money he put into ATV.

 


Wong Ching

Also known as Wang Zheng

Age: 51

Job: Chairman, Rongfeng Holding Group, which deals with real estate development and property management

Role in ATV: volunteer, consultant, major investor and creditor who claims to have loaned ATV HK$1.8 billion