Sunday, April 12, 2015

Letter to Hong Kong, April 12, 2015

Letter to Hong Kong, April 12, 2015

People often say, “life imitates art.” The saga of ATV has certainly turned out to stranger than fiction, and the soap opera simply refuses to bring itself to an end. The dramatic stunt pulled by the investor of ATV, Mr Wang Jing, prior to the supposed deadline imposed by the government for ATV to restructure and find a new buyer, with one potential buyer Mr Ricky Wong denying he had ever come to terms with Mr Wang, and another suitor Mr Kelvin Wu coming in only too late to reverse the government’s decision not to renew ATV’s free-to-air TV broadcast license.

I believe there are still many questions that remain unanswered and must be pursued. First, why did the Chief Executive in Council wait for almost half a year beyond the original date of announcing the decision to renew or not, being November of 2014, as the government had assured Legco repeatedly from 2013 to early 2014. Second, did ATV further violate broadcasting rules by falsely announcing a deal with Mr Ricky Wong on the eve of the license renewal decision by Exco, as well as violating securities rules at the same time by causing fluctuations in the stock price of Mr Ricky Wong’s company, HKTV.

But these questions of finding who were responsible for any wrongdoings pale in comparison in importance to the issues of looking forward to the post-ATV arrangement of Hong Kong’s TV broadcasting industry landscape and the related licenses, spectrum and facilities, and most of all, choice of programming and access to information by all our citizens.

While on April 1, the government simultaneously announced the denial of ATV’s free-to-air TV license renewal application, it also granted a license to Hong Kong Television Entertainment, HKTVE, part of the PCCW group, with its free TV services to be provided to most of Hong Kong’s home in about a year’s time, but only via fiber network to the home. While the government may want to cause an illusion that HKTVE can be a replacement for ATV, in fact it is not, not only because ATV may cease to be able to provide services before its license expiration on April 1 2015, HKTVE can in reality only provide free digital TV services to the homes and premises reached by its network, being 65 percent of Hong Kong’s households in the first year, to only 80 percent in even the sixth year. This is clearly a far cry from ATV’s 100 percent free-to-air coverage.

And what about the approximately 20 percent of our households, that are still only able to receive analog signals, using older TV sets and without digital terrestrial television decoders? The government says our public broadcasting station, RTHK, will take up the slack, from the time ATV’s broadcasting ends to 2020, when our analog TV services will be switched off. The problem is, RTHK, according to its management and staff, are totally unprepared and under-equipped to provide analog TV services, and indeed under-staffed and under-financed even in its current state in providing its present three free digital TV channels. And, RTHK would not be able to provide entertainment programs and more importantly, newscast programs at the same level with a commercial station like even a very weak ATV.

But why is the government so sure that these analog spectrum would be unappealing and worthless to the commercial TV market from 2016 to 2020, and maybe even later than that, should there be yet another delay in switching off the analog services for good? Apparently it did not consult publicly on this decision before deciding to turn the analog spectrum over to RTHK, and already several industry experts and academics have questioned this move, and some industry players have indicated interests in these spectrum.

Furthermore, one would expect the government to announce the accepting of new free-to-air TV broadcast license applications, at the same time when it refused ATV’s renewal application. But it didn’t! All it did was setting up an inter-departmental working group to figure out what to do, with no commitment as to how long a decision would have to be taken and in what direction.

What baffles me the most was that, as the Communications Authority had expressed that it made its recommendation to the Chief Executive in Council back in September not to renew ATV’s license, in this more than half a year’s time, why did it not commence its planning as to how to handle both the digital and analog spectrum that ATV had been holding, as well as how to handle the turning over of its facilities and broadcast network?

Was the Communications Authority too accustomed to our Chief Executive making his “one man’s decision” and overturning the CA’s recommendation, as he did when denying HKTV’s free TV broadcast license application, so it was a big surprise to the CA when the Chief Executive indeed agreed not to renew ATV’s license this time? No matter what, there are still a hundred ways to handle a right decision in the wrong way, and the ATV saga is demonstrating to us exactly how.

While the termination of a free TV broadcast license in Hong Kong is something that has never happened before, there is no excuse not to be well prepared and give the industry and the public a clear message about what will happen next. Now we have none of that.

What we have now is an uncertainty as to how and when the digital spectrum ATV holds will be open for application, and a dubious decision to abruptly turn over the analog spectrum to an apparently unwilling and definitely unprepared RTHK, without consulting the industry and the public, leaving the future of Hong Kong’s television industry development, already very behind in the region for an advanced city like us, in further limbo.

What is certain is that our 7 million television viewers will have less choice in the coming years of programming surely in quantity, and likely in quality too as there’ll be less competition. Even advertisers are facing an unknown and potentially lengthy period of a choice of only one station to advertise on free-to-air TV broadcast service.

So why did it end up like this? More than a decade ago when the government announced that it will open up the free TV market, we were expecting more competition, more choices and better utilization of our facilities and resources, including our spectrum and fiber networks, to elevate the creative sector as a whole. But the government and in particular this administration abruptly changed the course of this development by overturning these policies, first by not granting a license to the most eager content developer of all potential players, HKTV, and then by prolonging an eventually inevitable decision not to renew the license of a troubled ATV that is beyond any rescue. And now, further indecision about the reallocation of ATV’s digital spectrum, and the allocation of its analog spectrum to an RTHK that certainly would not add any more diversity to what’s already available to Hong Kong’s viewers.

Why is the government doing all these? No wonder many of us suspect that there must be a political motive behind, in limiting the availability of the channels of expression of opinions, both via news and public affairs programs as well as even entertainment programming, in the coming several critical years when we will face critical municipal, legislative and chief executive elections.

What do we make of all this when the government proclaims that it wants to encourage Hong Kong’s innovation and creative industries? Without genuine freedom, openness, transparency and choice, all such talks are hot air. Indeed, our TV spectrum is a most precious asset that belongs to everyone in Hong Kong, and the administration cannot rob us of our freedom to choose.

(Broadcast on RTHK Radio 3, 9:15am, April 12, 2015)

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