Hong Kong's volatile free-to-air TV picture

25 Aug 2015

Many consumer-level entities in Hong Kong boil down to A versus B. We have two main supermarket chains, two pharmacy chains, etc. Imagine Coke versus Pepsi on a citywide scale.

Hong Kong's broadcast television followed this format for decades, but with a twist. The two private broadcasters – TVB and ATV – each had an English-language channel, and a Chinese-language channel (the latter primarily in the lingua franca of Hong Kong: Cantonese...government-owned broadcaster RTHK ). In practice, the vast majority of Hong Kong households left their tuning-dial set to TVB's Cantonese channel.

Nowadays, on-air TV is delivered digitally and both TVB and ATV have several channels. However, ATV has experienced near-catastrophic problems in most business areas in recent years. According to Wikipedia, on April 1 2015 (no joke), Hong Kong’s Executive Council announced that it would not be extending Asia Television's free-to-air license and their spot will be taken over by Hong Kong Television Entertainment (香港電視娛樂有限公司: a television service operator operated by PCCW, who also owns IPTV platform now TV).

Here comes Ricky
In doing so, the government once again ignores the most prominent player-wannabee in this space: Hong Kong Television Network aka HKTV (香港電視網絡有限公司). The iconoclastic network commenced broadcasting on 19 November 2014 through live broadcasting and VOD, after its initial denial for a domestic free-to-air television license was rejected by the Hong Kong government in October 2013.

HKTV's latest venture is an online shopping mall, but that's in keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit of their chairman and founder: Ricky Wong (王維基). Even within Hong Kong's laissez-faire business culture, Wong's a maverick. According to Wikipedia, Wong set up City Telecom in 1992 to provide callback IDD services at affordable tariffs and subverted the dominant market paradigm. He then established Hong Kong Broadband Network in 1999 and built a territory-wide fiber network (it's now the second largest IP provider in Hong Kong). In 2010, Wong was voted the 60th most powerful person in Global Telecoms Business by Global Telecom Business Magazine.

Dissed by the HK gov't
Wong has the cred, so why did the government diss him by denying a free-to-air license? The answer may lie in what HKTV eventually produced.

From a creative standpoint, HKTV's productions are more relevant to modern Hong Kong audiences than offerings from either TVB or the now-moribund ATV. An immediate standout: "The Election" (選戰), about the election of Hong Kong's Chief Executive in 2017. The winning candidate is killed in a car accident on the day he wins the election and his widow (played by Angelica Lee (李心潔) who achieved fame in the horror hit The Eye, later remade by Hollywood and starring Jessica Alba) takes his place.

A fan of HKTV said this about the channel: "I got to know HKTV by watching "The Election" – I found the plot, the scenes, the photographing very professional and movie-like, and far better than [recent] soap dramas produced by TVB. That showed the 'heart' of this company and we saw hope. This is what I expect television production to be in these days."

Audience expectation
Any television exec will tell you that failing to meet audience expectations is a formula for viewer-churn. In our mediascape of big-screen high-definition displays (soon to be 4K), audiences expect high quality programming both in terms of plot and execution.

Then there's the mobile factor. Hong Kong's public transport feature thousands of people glued to their smartphone/tablet screens during rush-hour commutes. Local storage, 4G...even Wi-Fi. Hi-def retina displays playing dramas from local media outlets – including of course, HKTV.

HKTV's free-to-air bid: unfairly spiked?
That anonymous viewer again: "I was so disappointed when I learned that HKTV did not get the [free-to-air] license – this was against the view of the general public of Hong Kong."

My anecdotal feeling is also that most Hong Kongers were disappointed that HKTV didn't get a TV license. And "The Election" isn't the only topical series they've produced – "The Menu" (導火新聞線) is a fictional series documenting a Hong Kong tabloid newspaper, a show that could only be in Cantonese (HK tabloids are notorious for their pushy paparazzi – photographers so tenacious they're called "puppy teams" as they follow celebrities around like a pack of hounds).

The future of Hong Kong's television landscape is uncertain, but it seems a shame that a free-thinker like Ricky Wong is being shut out by the local guardians of the airwaves.

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