21 October 2016
The web entertainment platform of Jack Ma Yun's (inset) Alibaba Group will offer TVB-produced productions tailored to mainland tastes. Photos: Reuters, HKEJ
The web entertainment platform of Jack Ma Yun's (inset) Alibaba Group will offer TVB-produced productions tailored to mainland tastes. Photos: Reuters, HKEJ

What Alibaba-TVB tie up means for HK viewers

The Hong Kong media sector is once again catching the eye of investors.

Owners of traditional media like newspapers, magazines and free television stations are struggling for survival amid the challenge from the internet, and they are turning to wealthy Chinese for cash and support in an attempt to reach out to the mainland’s 1.3 billion population.

That could lead to Hong Kong media serving the interests of the mainland market, rather than readers and viewers in the city.

The latest example is Television Broadcasts Ltd. (00511.HK), the dominant player in the TV business.

The Hong Kong-based station has reached a deal with Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., China’s biggest e-commerce company, which has recently been expanding its footprint aggressively into the media sector.

The move indicates that TVB is transforming itself from a local TV station to a China-focused media firm.

It is expected that TVB will gradually reduce its reliance on Hong Kong and turn to tap the massive mainland market after Li Ruigang, a veteran media executive with strong Communist Party and Beijing connections, became a TVB shareholder earlier this year.

Liu Chun-ning, head of Alibaba’s digital entertainment business, told Chinese media the firm will cooperate with TVB and introduce the station’s productions into Alibaba’s Yu Le Bao web-based home entertainment platform.

Both parties will decide the direction the productions will take, but production itself will be done by TVB.

Liu said TVB will shift its focus, reducing the number of locally oriented productions and producing more drama series tailored to the tastes of the mainland market.

In partnership with Alibaba, TVB is expected to increase its audience in the mainland and Taiwan.

The company will announce details in the coming three months.

TVB used to be the pride of Hong Kong, as it was the leader in the entertainment sector in the global Chinese community from the 1980s to the early ’90s.

The station’s Cantonese dramas were popular overseas, and residents of Guangdong province tuned in enthusiastically to the TVB signal from across the border for Hong Kong-style entertainment.

That was the golden age of Hong Kong media.

Now, with its shift of focus, TVB has been broadcasting the mainland-produced drama series Empress of China in the prime-time slot seven days a week.

Hong Kong viewers will in the near future have no choice but to accept such mainland productions as TVB reduces its locally generated content, since the station will have a free-to-air monopoly once Asia Television Ltd. closes down.

That will be a big change in the Hong Kong media landscape.

TVB used to reap huge profits from licensing its archive of locally produced programs to provincial TV stations in the mainland at a time when the viewers to the north preferred to watch Hong Kong productions.

But now as the mainland’s economy strengthens and its own TV production industry becomes more sophisticated, viewers there no longer have a particular interest in Hong Kong fare, preferring home-grown content.

Viewers in Hong Kong will soon have reason to doubt whether TVB remains a locally oriented station or is intent on serving the mainland market instead.

TVB is not the only Hong Kong media outlet targeted by rising entrepreneurs from the mainland.

It is rumored that ATV is being acquired by a Shandong province-based tycoon with no media experience.

The new owner of ATV is reportedly pumping in cash to meet salary payments to the station’s staff, as well as planning to invest aggressively in cross-media platforms and committed to a 24-hour business news channel.

While investment in Hong Kong’s TV industry can be a purely business decision made by investors, the government also plays an important role, as all TV stations are regulated by the Broadcasting Ordinance.

Hong Kong’s free TV stations used to be owned by companies based in the city and managed by Hongkongers with right of abode.

But now, after the various investment and partnership deals, will Hong Kong’s TV stations serve the best interests of the city?

The closer its links with the mainland, the less independence Hong Kong media will enjoy in future.

Some Hongkongers have dubbed TVB “CCTVB”, poking fun at the station as a Hong Kong branch of China Central Television.

As the future of Hong Kong’s media becomes more closely tied to mainland interests, Hongkongers can either accept a mainland-style media or roam the internet for a wider range of content beyond China.

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EJ Insight writer

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