Hong Kong's ATV denied new free-to-air licence as Exco pulls the plug on ailing broadcaster
After four-hour meeting, government decides not to renew struggling broadcaster’s free-TV licence
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his cabinet finally pulled the plug on struggling broadcaster ATV yesterday, deciding not to renew its free-to-air licence which expires in November.
On an April Fool's Day filled with real-life drama that created a bigger sensation than any programme the cash-strapped station has produced in recent years, the Executive Council spent four hours to decide that ATV did not deserve the lifeline it was desperately seeking.
Commerce and Economic Development Secretary Gregory So Kam-leung, the minister in charge of broadcasting, explained that ATV had been given ample time to submit a sustainable business plan to carry on, but had failed to deliver. And there was no potential buyer with a satisfactory financial proposal.
"It's the first time in Hong Kong's history that the government has refused to renew a television licence," he said.
The station will be allowed to operate until April 1, 2016, as the government is required to give it a full year's notice. If ATV continues to breach broadcasting laws in the interim, its licence could be revoked altogether.
In a significant move, the government is formally giving a free-to-air licence to Hong Kong Television Entertainment (HKTVE), run by Richard Li Tzar-kai's PCCW, which already operates the subscription-based Now TV. HKTVE, whose licence was approved in principle in 2013, could begin operating a Chinese-language channel within a year, followed by an English channel a year later.
Yesterday's Executive Council decision followed a surprise announcement in the morning by Deloitte, the accounting firm tasked by the High Court to find a "white knight" to save the ATV.
Deloitte confirmed that the broadcaster's de facto boss, Wong Ching, had agreed to sell his 52.4 per cent controlling stake, officially held by his relative Wong Ben-koon, to an unnamed buyer, believed to be AID Partners Capital, the firm that saved HMV from liquidation in Hong Kong last year. But So said it wasn't enough to justify an extension of ATV's licence.
That was just after HKTV's maverick boss, Ricky Wong Wai-kay, categorically denied Wong Ching's stunning claim the previous day, using ATV's evening news broadcast, that the telecoms veteran would be the white knight.
Reflecting public concerns that ATV had misled the markets with false information that sparked a surge in HKTV's share price, former commerce minister Frederick Ma Si-hang suggested the Securities and Futures Commission could launch an insider-trading probe over the matter.
ATV is already being prosecuted by the government for repeatedly failing to pay staff wages on time.
But even before the government announced ATV's fate yesterday, the station issued an angry statement promising to fight on and suggesting it might take the case to court.
With the fate of ATV's 700 staff hanging in the balance, So said he was very concerned about their plight and the Labour Department would help them.
There were tears in ATV's newsroom in Tai Po yesterday as long-serving staff received the devastating news. Many blamed Wong Ching for their troubles, accusing him of single-handedly destroying the company.
"Why should 700 be damned for one man's sin?" asked veteran actor Frankie Choi Kwok-wai.
Culture and sports lawmaker Ma Fung-kwok also blamed Wong Ching and said he hoped the station's replacement would absorb existing employees.
IT sector lawmaker Charles Mok said the biggest problem was that the government did not specify how it would go about granting ATV's licence to another operator. "Is the government facilitating TVB's monopoly?" he asked.
As for the man at the centre of the storm, Wong Ching, it was "the darkest day for Hong Kong".
"But I am not surprised," he added, describing it as "an inevitable outcome of a series of scheming and conspiracy" against ATV. "This is the price [we have] to pay as a media of conscience."