Television Broadcasts Ltd. (TVB, 00511.HK), Hong Kong’s biggest free-to-air television broadcaster, has come under fire in the recent past for giving prime-time slots to mainland China-produced drama series.
Critics have questioned the programming choices of the TV station, accusing it of pandering to Beijing and promoting the mainland’s “soft power” at the expense of local Hong Kong culture.
In late April, TVB began airing “The Empress of China”, a hit drama series from the mainland, seven days a week.
The drama, which is based on events in the 7th and 8th century and outlines the rise of Wu Zetian – China’s first and only female emperor — marked the start of a new programming lineup for TVB’s third prime-time evening slot (9.30 to 10.30 pm).
While the drama series was no doubt grand — it is said to be among the most expensive in Chinese TV history, with an all-star cast from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan — TVB had been accused of trying to bring about a shift in local audience tastes and make them more open to mainland culture.
As the move came in the wake of political tensions and conflicts between Hong Kong people and mainlanders, TVB was seen having a hidden agenda.
The TV station, on its part, has dismissed the charges as absurd and said that it is merely trying to bring in good and popular content and boost viewer numbers.
Later, TVB also suggested that the new programming lineup has been paying off.
But is that so really?
According to the latest TV rating report, “The Empress of China” had a ratings peak at 37 during the last two episodes, with the average rating at 33.
As each rating point is equivalent to around 65,000 viewers, more than 2.4 million Hong Kong viewers are believed to have watched the episode on Sunday night. That’s really not a small number given Hong Kong’s total population of 7 million and around 2 million households.
But if you look at the average rating of the Chinese drama series, it has not done well compared with TVB’s own productions in the past years.
The average television rating point during the past 10 weeks was only 26, with the figure mostly in the 23 to 31 range. Compared with last year’s highest rated drama series “Triumph in the Skies II”, TVB has actually lost viewers this year.
The average rating for Triumph in the Skies II was 36 points, which is 10 rating points higher than that of Empress of China. Thus, TVB may have lost around 650,000 viewers.
Apart from airing the Empress of China, TVB also launched a Hong Kong and China co-produced drama series “Master of Destiny” from late June. However, the ratings on that too have been falling after an average score of 24 points in the first week.
Last week, the series enjoyed just 21 rating points, close to the 20-point alert line.
The Empress of China, whose cast includes top names such as Fan Bingbing, Zhang Fengyi and Janine Chang, was a big hit in both China and Taiwan television markets.
TVB also scored some initial success as it began broadcasting the series seven days a week and airing all the 74 episodes from late April to mid July.
The broadcasting arrangement was a nudge to locals to change their viewing habits, as in the past Hongkongers had been fed TV drama series only from Monday to Friday.
The latest TV ratings report suggests that TVB has had mixed results with regard to its new programming strategy.
Many people are still dependant on free-to-air TV for home entertainment after a day’s hard work, but there is also growing wariness about mainland-produced content.
TVB has been testing Hong Kong viewers’ reaction by putting two China-produced drama series in the prime time slot, and leaving only one half-hour situation comedy on the program list.
The management seems to think that acquired programs will be sufficient to bring in viewers and advertising dollars, and that the company doesn’t need to invest on its own productions.
While the need to bring down costs may indeed be a reason for scaling back original productions, it is also becoming apparent that others factors are at play.
Some media watchers believe TVB is undergoing a significant change after Li Ruigang, a Chinese media veteran with strong Communist Party connections, became a shareholder.
Under the station’s plan, top-rated Chinese drama series will be put on air, weaning Hong Kong people away from local productions, observers say.
Once the audiences accept the new programs in sufficiently large numbers, more Chinese content or co-productions between Hong Kong and China will be aired during prime time.
Although TVB would like the public to believe that it is a normal business decision, it is clear that there is some political thinking behind the decisions.
Television stations have an important role in the Communist Party’s propaganda system. In Hong Kong, TVB could serve as a media outlet that promotes the central government’s interests and help the proxy administration in the city, Chinese officials feel.
To eliminate competition, the Hong Kong government has opted not to grant more free-to-air TV licenses to new contenders.
With authorities deciding not to renew the broadcasting license of Asia Television earlier this year, Hong Kong will have only strong terrestrial TV station.
But is it right for TVB to abuse its virtual monopoly and change its program lineup to cater to the interests of Beijing, rather than that of local citizens?
This is a question that is bound to come up more frequently in the months ahead.
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