20 February 2019
There is talk that key ATV investor Wong Ching may be close to selling, if not already offloaded, the unprofitable Hong Kong television station. Photo: HKEJ
There is talk that key ATV investor Wong Ching may be close to selling, if not already offloaded, the unprofitable Hong Kong television station. Photo: HKEJ

Why ATV attracts buyers despite its troubles

Is Asia Television (ATV), the smaller of Hong Kong’s free-to-air TV broadcasters, poised for an ownership change? And if so, who is the buyer and what is prompting the interest? 

Well, rumors regarding the troubled terrestrial station have been nothing new, with many theories floated in the past few years on the entity whose history goes back to almost 60 years.

That said, there is some fresh buzz that is worth taking note. According to latest speculation, ATV has found a buyer and is seeking government approval to conduct an equity transaction.

The broadcaster, which has fallen behind due to an onslaught of online video portals and funding constraints brought about by shareholder squabbles, could see its fate get decided as early as before the year-end when authorities announce a decision on license renewal.

The latest rumor, which gained currency after a social media posting by media veteran Lee Chan-wing on Monday, did not give any clue on the identity of the potential buyer. But media reports had earlier suggested that Emperor Group boss Albert Yeung was among those showing interest in the firm.

As the company has struggled in its operations, the government had faced some calls to take away the license from ATV and give it to a new player who can run the television station well.

While authorities have concerns about the broadcaster, it will however be difficult for the government to cease the operation of ATV without solid ground.

ATV programs often garner less than 5 rating points, which is equivalent to around 300,000 viewers, far less than its rival Television Broadcasts (TVB), whose programs enjoy more than 20 points or more than 1 million viewers. Still, that wouldn’t be enough reason to deny a 15-year license renewal.

While it is beset with many problems, ATV still has its position in the market, which is to act as an official broadcaster for pro-Beijing voices in the city. The station is seen as the TV version of newspapers such as Wen Wei Pao and Ta Kung Pao, which serve as mouthpieces for Beijing.

The political factor is the reason why the broadcaster is attracting investor interest despite its poor financial situation and weak ratings. Keeping ATV alive is not a business decision, but a political one, for sure.

Hong Kong’s media industry is no longer as vibrant as it was before 1997, as behind-the-scenes intervention from the mainland has led to pro-Beijing tycoons take control of many media entities.

On Monday, while Chinese President Xi Jinping met a delegation of Hong Kong business leaders, three tycoons — Kerry Group boss Robert Kuok, Wharf Holdings’ Peter Woo and Sing Tao News Corp boss Charles Ho — were in the spotlight as they sat in the front row with Xi for a group photograph.

Kuok controls South China Morning Post, the most influential English newspaper in Hong Kong, while Woo is the owner of Cable TV, a pay TV service provider in the city. As for Ho, he is the founder of Headline Daily, the largest circulated free Chinese paper in Hong Kong.

The three tycoons’ prominent seating in the front row, along with Xi and former Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa and billionaire Li Ka-Shing, shows the importance of sections of Hong Kong media in the minds of Beijing’s top leaders. 

The media industry has been a point of conflict between Hong Kong and China. Hong Kong people believe that media should not be pressured by external forces, and that it should be a voice for the general public and maintain editorial independence and professionalism.

However, Beijing looks upon media as a tool to “harmonize” the society and to promote patriotism toward China. Beijing needs loyalists to control media firms in Hong Kong in order to move the former British colony closer to the mainland.

Thus, media ownership is a key issue.

Given this, if ATV does indeed see an ownership change, it would be fair to surmise that the new owner will be someone who will be sympathetic to Beijing.

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EJ Insight writer

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