59 years in the making: how Hong Kong’s Asia Television went from a pioneering broadcaster to final death
In its heyday people flocked to watch its programmes; later it stopped making its own shows and even news programmes
From being the world’s first Chinese-language TV station to being a laughing stock in Hong Kong, the long-running reality drama of 59-year-old Asia Television finally drew to a close last night as its free-to-air TV licence expired.
How ATV became an icon
ATV started out as a trendsetter. In 1957, British broadcaster Rediffusion launched a pay-TV service in Hong Kong. Besides news and entertainment, Rediffusion also led the trend in acquiring Japanese anime shows, including Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy in 1966.
Rediffusion became a free-to-air broadcaster in 1973. The rise of young creative talent at Rediffusion, such as Johnny Mak Tong-hung and Stephen Shiu Yeuk-yuen, who both went on to become star filmmakers, boosted its fortunes.
Notable hits included long-running modern drama Crocodile Tears (1978) and Fatherland (1980), which tells the tales of farmers in modern Chinese history. Fatherland trumped TVB’s ratings, capturing 60 per cent of viewership at the time.
Rediffusion was renamed Asia Television in 1982 when Deacon Chiu Te-ken, founder of Far East Holdings, took over. Known for his tight fiscal discipline, ATV under Chiu was a profitable outfit, with a slew of new shows including the Miss Asia beauty pageant.
In 1988, a year after a fire that nearly burned down the station’s headquarters, Lai Sun Group founder Lim Por-yen took over ATV in another reshuffle.
Lim brought Selina Chow, formerly with TVB and CTV, on board as general manager. From Celebrity Talk Show to infotainment show forerunner Hong Kong Today, ATV was a trailblazer in creating new shows.
Current affairs talk show News Tease became a career launch pad for Wong Yuk-man and Albert Cheng King-hon, who went on to become celebrity hosts and later legislators. Cult TV classic My Date with a Vampire was created during this golden era.
Slow path to the bottom
The constant shuffling of ATV’s ownership after Lim sold his stake led to the TV station’s demise.
ATV was still in good shape when Feng Xiaoping, a mainland property developer, took over in 1998. The station scored 39 rating points with more than a million viewers with the acquired game show Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
But the station could not sustain its popularity. “That’s why people always say ATV wins battles but loses the campaign. People there only wanted to win battles but didn’t think about sustainability,” said former ATV employee and scriptwriter Alex Pao.
Stakeholder disputes made things worse. The Cha brothers - Payson Cha Mou-sing and Johnson Cha Mou-daid - were in a constant war of words with fellow shareholder, Taiwanese snack tycoon Tsai Eng-meng. Tsai brought in his team with the aim of revamping the TV station, but he was eventually sidelined and lost control over ATV.
What went wrong
As soon as mainland businessman Wong Ching declared that he would turn ATV into “Asia’s answer to CNN”,it was the beginning of the end for the ailing broadcaster.
Wong was brought in to ATV by the Cha brothers as a major investor in 2010. He ran the show from behind the scenes, but was never a shareholder or held any official position at ATV.
Under Wong’s “direction”, ATV’s credibility was dented in 2011 when the station was fined HK$300,000 by the media watchdog for erroneously reporting the death of former leader Jiang Zemin.
Two years later, in 2013, a Communications Authority investigation report found that Wong interfered in the station’s operations through former chief James Shing Pan-yu. ATV was fined a record HK$1 million and Shing was forced out.
“None of them had a TV background,” said Chung Yat-ming, ATV’s former vice-president of marketing and sales.
Chung said under Wong, ATV slashed the production of shows such as dramas that could attract audiences. “He also insisted on raising advertising fees which no advertisers would accept,” he said.
Former veteran actor Frankie Choi said Wong turned ATV into his personal playground to entertain his mainland business partners.
“Some colleagues had to attend private events and dinners to entertain bosses’ clients. Some had to pretend to be producing a programme just to entertain visiting clients. It was ridiculous.”
An ugly ending
In just five years, ATV not only lost its credibility but was also fined at least 16 times over delayed salary payments and licensing violations. The fines totalled more than HK$4 million. Eventually the Executive Council decided last year not to renew ATV’s licence.
Even though the station was taken over by China Culture Media International, the station still could not settle unpaid wages. Dedicated journalists walked out. Even the newscasts required by its licence terms were halted.
Wong even filed a court application to liquidate ATV. The court appointed Deloitte as provisional liquidator, which almost shut down the station twice over the past month.
ATV wrote a glorious chapter in Hong Kong’s past television history with its alternative drama and infotainment productions and current affairs programmes. But on Friday night, instead of mourning the broadcaster’s loss, audiences and even former veterans were relieved to see the beleaguered broadcaster finally going off-air.
To former Miss Asia champion Grace Cheung, it was best for ATV to end this way. “It’s time to clear out the old and make way for the new,” she said.