Sunday, February 07, 2016

Letter to Hong Kong -- The End of ATV

Just when many of us in Hong Kong are happily preparing for the coming of the Year of the Monkey, 300 workers of Asia Television are facing an uncertain future, with the station trimming down its broadcast to a minimal level, even ending its news broadcast altogether since Saturday. The oldest television station in Hong Kong, with almost 59 years of history in Hong Kong, may go off the air any minute now.

To many of us who to certain extent over the years grew up with ATV, or Rediffusion Television from 1957 to 1982, it is a sad moment of the passage of a part of Hong Kong’s history. But to the employees of ATV, it is much more than that. Many of them had been working unpaid since December, doing all they could to keep the station on the air, while watching the company’s owner and investors fidgeting around with a laid-back attitude as if to say it is “none of their business”, and at the same time watching our government and broadcast regulator sitting there paying lip services as if to say “there is nothing that they can do.”

Certainly, ATV by cutting its news programs or even going off the air before the end of its license period on April 1, 2016, is going to be a breach of its licensing obligation and ATV will be still subject to fines and punishment by the regulator, the Office of the Communications Authority, but that is not the most important matter now. After all, ATV’s major creditor, Wang Zheng, has made a court application to liquidate the company’s asset. With that, a likely scenario would be that the unpaid salaries of its staff might remain unpaid by the company’s investors.

We should of course condemn these deplorable and very possibly illegal acts of irresponsibility, but under layers of corporate ownership shielding and protection, the bosses may very likely get away with it completely. How much more bizarre can it get when the supposed major investors of ATV is identified as its major creditor instead, and becoming the first in line to liquidate the company? Then we must ask, why wasn’t there anything that our government and its regulator could do to prevent this almost inevitable outcome to ATV’s employees and their families?

Earlier this week, when asked about the plight of these ATV workers, the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development urged other players in the TV industry to help offer them jobs. When I heard that cold and insensitive comment, I felt my anger swelling. How did these hundreds of ATV workers end up like this? What did the government do since it announced that ATV’s free TV broadcast license would not be renewed back in April 1, 2015? Nothing. What did this Administration do to prevent new TV competition from getting their licenses so that they can invest and hire people? Well, everything.

Indeed, this Administration has done all it could on great lengths to change the previously existing “open sky” television broadcast policy, overriding the decision of the professional regulator to bar Hong Kong Television from getting its license, and continued to fight the judicial review HKTV raised, and even after the court ruled in favor of HKTV, this Administration felt it was necessary to appeal the judgment to make sure we do not get a new TV station online soon. And now, the Secretary in charge of broadcast policy is telling those “other stations” to offer jobs to ATV employees? What a shameless thing to say!

As a matter of fact, what we are witnessing is the perfect case of misguided public policy that has killed not just a few companies or their aspirations like ATV and HKTV, but a whole industry. Even after the long-overdue decision not to extend ATV’s license, what did the government do to prepare for the contingency of ATV not being able to last itself until April 1 of this year? Well, too little, too late, like, for the transfer of ATV’s analog spectrum to RTHK, so that the remaining up to 400,000 households still watching analog TV only will not be left with only TVB, the government and RTHK are still just going through a tender process now to identify a service provider to help build the transmission network, with less than two months to go before April 1. Why such procrastination?

But even more importantly, what about the digital spectrum held by ATV? One third of that has been assigned to Hong Kong Television Entertainment, which will start its broadcast service supposedly on April 1, but both that company or our government has not offered us any idea of what the initial coverage will be or how users will be able to access its programming over the fiber network. There’s still no word as to when that one-third of ATV’s digital spectrum assigned to it will be up and ready for broadcast.

And what about the other two-thirds of ATV’s current digital spectrum? We will have to wait for the next one or two TV stations to get their licenses, and although we have at least three such companies waiting in the pipeline – including Fantastic TV, Forever Top, and the second application of HKTV. Yet considering the pace of such licensing processes in recent years, it will probably take at least two to three years to get these precious public assets back in use again by anyone.

Such is the sad state of our TV industry for Hong Kong, a total disgrace for an international city with certainly the commercial, financial, technical and creative capacities, but stopped by government inaptitude and the hostility this Administration holds against the media and any more outlets for speech and news contents that it feels it can’t control.

So what can we do? In the coming years, the government will launch a once again long-delayed and overdue consultation on the merging of our broadcasting and telecommunications regulations. It will be both an opportunity to right the wrong by eliminating the overriding power held by the Chief Executive to single-handedly dictate our broadcast policies, as well as a threat that more powers will be consolidated in the hands of the Chief Executive, which we must oppose.

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