More than 640,000 Hongkongers chose to watch Hong Kong Television Network on Wednesday.
The birth of Ricky Wong Wai-kay’s new online TV platform sends a strong signal that the government’s regulatory framework for the TV industry is outdated and should embrace the new technology to increase the choices available to viewers.
HKTV released the 640,000 figure, which can be treated as the official number of viewers on its first day of operations.
If you include the 300,000 or so people who watched the station’s programs using unauthorised channels, such as the UStream video streaming platform, HKTV achieved a viewership of almost one million on its debut.
This should put significant pressure on both the Hong Kong government, which denied the station a free-to-air TV license a year ago, and Television Broadcasts (TVB), which has looked down on HKTV since the upstart applied for the license in 2009.
TVB’s anniversary show on the same day recorded only 25 rating points on average, equivalent to a viewership of 1.7 million, a historical low.
The figures provide evidence that Hong Kong’s population of more than seven million has long awaited a real choice in the market.
Why would people abandon their free-to-air programs and rush out to get a set-top box or a smart TV or download an app onto their smartphones to watch the HKTV programs?
The reason is simple. Hongkongers need a real choice in local television programs rather than having to put up with one dominant player feeding them low-quality, standard programs.
When Greg So Kam-leung, the secretary for commerce and economic development, who is responsible for the media industry in Hong Kong, attended HKTV’s opening ceremony on Wednesday, it could have been a sign that political calculations may have played a part in the government’s refusal to issue a license to HKTV last year.
The government has argued that broadcast spectrum is a scarce resource and refused to allow new segments of spectrum for new TV stations.
In fact, PCCW’s Now TV, which has won government approval to run a new free TV channel, is fighting for the use of spectrum to deliver its content directly to viewers’ homes, rather than through the broadband network.
While broadband is now nearly universal, there are still some elderly people who still don’t know how to connect to the internet, let alone watch TV using a set-top box.
That’s the reason why a free-to-air TV license is still a valuable asset, as it has been for TVB in the past decades.
The government cited HKTV’s lack of financial strength and industry experience for its decision not to issue the station a license.
But that doesn’t explain why Asia Television (ATV), the small free-to-air broadcaster, which has been making losses for the last decade, is allowed to sit on huge spectrum resources and can even rent out some unused spectrum to TVB for it to expand its high-definition broadcast service.
If the government wishes to be fair to the public, it should take back all the unused spectrum from the two existing broadcasters and RTHK for reallocation to all interested parties in the city’s TV market.
It is nonsense for the government to allow ATV to hoard the scarce resources while refusing to let new ventures with heart, like HKTV, transmit their content via the airwaves.
Perhaps it should force ATV to return its license, so as to maintain a level playing field.
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