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ATV’s embarrassing demise spells the end of restrictive broadcasting in Hong Kong

By William Kwan

On April 1, the beleaguered Asia Television Limited (ATV) finally ended its 58 years of broadcasting; unfortunately, it will probably be best remembered for its ill-fame during its latter years. The broadcaster’s closure has not only signalled the failure of the SAR government’s attempt to keep the struggling player afloat through favouritism. It has also become obvious that the authorities have gone back on their word, having initially promised a no-quota policy on the number of free-to-air TV licences to be granted.

Old ATV Studios

The old ATV Studios. Photo: HKFP.

ATV’s operating history has been a negative example for society, but perhaps its demise offers an opportunity for a rethink of policy towards the city’s electronic media, and for those in the business to plan the way forward for the industry.

No alternative for TV viewers in Hong Kong in the past

Hongkongers have long been offered only two options – TVB (Television Broadcasting Limited) and ATV. Among the two, TVB has always been “popular” and it is almost synonymous with Hong Kong’s TV scene. Even the addition of three paid TV stations some years ago failed to change TVB’s effective monopoly. As a result, the quality of TV programmes continues to deteriorate, due to the lack of competition.

In 2009, the SAR government announced it would grant more free-to-air TV licences. Among the applicants, Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV) made a bold move to invest heavily in the production of its own TV drama series, which received acclaim when they premiered on the internet. But in a highly unpopular move, the government in 2013 finally decided to reject HKTV’s bid for a free-to-air TV licence. Tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the government’s decision, which was seen as yet another example of bad governance. As of today, TVB’s monopoly has yet to be broken, with only one of the two successful free-to-air TV licence applicants just starting its limited broadcasting service.

HKTV logo and chairman Ricky Wong.

HKTV logo and chairman Ricky Wong. Photo: Wikimedia Commons & Apple Daily.

Internet broadcasting fast rising above chaos

Hongkongers have long been left with the impression that the city’s internet broadcasting has been the province of political radicals who have no qualms about hurling insults and using vulgarities in their tirades against political foes on air. But the situation has changed since 2011 when the Digital Broadcasting Corporation (DBC) started its radio service with the help of a team of media veterans who used to work for the city’s mainstream news outlets, and in doing so, it has introduced a more sustainable model of internet radio service to Hong Kong.

Concurrent with such developments, in a bid to cater for the evolving needs of TV audiences who no longer centre their lives on the TV schedule, free-to-air TV stations have also begun to upload a greater proportion of their programmes online for the audience to view on demand or to watch live on the internet.  Some free-to-air TV stations have even started to adapt themselves to the age of the internet by uploading some of their programmes on YouTube in an attempt to broaden their reach. In terms of the variety of content of TV programmes, small-scale internet TV stations are already producing programmes that serve niche as well as mass audiences. All these developments suggest that the internet TV broadcasting scene is set to be more diversified than ever in terms of content.

TV broadcasting – going mobile, more internet-based and niche focused

The reason why internet-based broadcasting has yet to replace traditional terrestrial broadcasting is mainly because the speed of the former in the past was unsatisfactory. But now that the technical difficulties have mostly been overcome, coupled with ease of access on mobile devices, one can expect that web-based television broadcasting is the way forward. Smartphones, instead of the TV set, will be the device of choice for the majority.

tvb newsroom news

TVB Newsroom. File photo: Wikicommons.

One can also expect TV in the future will become more niche-friendly, thanks to the nature of web-based broadcasting which makes it easier than ever to gather the like-minded. The content available in the future will be unimaginable to those of us who are used to what TV broadcasters now have to offer.

Hong Kong has all it takes to serve the ethnic Chinese audience all over the world, with its unique edge in possessing experienced and creative talents in TV production, together with the free flow of information and with its position as a traditional cultural powerhouse in the Chinese-speaking world.

While it is taking the SAR government several years just to complete its review of free-to-air licence approvals, internet-based broadcasters from overseas are filling the void and getting a head start in offering their programmes to TV viewers in Hong Kong. More web-based broadcasters are likely to emerge in the near future due to the low entry barrier to starting an internet TV broadcasting platform.

With the fall of ATV and continuing disappointment with TVB, web-based television is where the future lies.

William Kwan is an IT Voice member and an IT quality engineer. 

ATV's embarrassing demise spells the end of restrictive broadcasting in Hong Kong