Television Broadcasts, the city’s biggest free TV station, used to be Hong Kong’s pride. It was a leader in defining and shaping the city’s pop culture in the 1980s.
But the broadcaster appears to be losing support from the huge mainland market.
A commentary published in a state-owned newspaper offers some insights into the decline of what was once Hong Kong’s cultural icon.
In its overseas edition on Monday, the Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily ran an article titled “A visit to TVB, the star factory and the origin of Hong Kong drama”.
While the headline seems quite neutral, the article itself points out that the lack of investment and creativity has led to a decline in the broadcaster’s productions in recent years.
The writer notes that many of the TVB drama serials were produced at its TV City studios.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, but fans have come to realize that many of the drama productions have been shot using the same props and sceneries.
The article is not trying to find fault, but making obvious observations.
“TVB fans sometimes get tired of seeing the same scene being used over and over again,” it says.
It tries hard to understand the situation faced by the producers, and offers an explanation: “It may be due to the shortage of land in Hong Kong.“
And it’s not just the repeated use of the same sceneries that is apparent to most viewers. Even the studio props and apparel worn by artists are employed excruciatingly frequently.
“In TVB, one set of clothes can be used repeatedly over a period lasting for more than a decade, and so are the props used in different programs,” says the article.
In fact, many TVB fans have made fun of this repeated use of props and apparel by doing a “screen capture” of one scene in a drama series and comparing it with another done a week earlier for another show.
But why do Chinese viewers still stick it out with TVB?
The article says many of them still watch TVB productions because they nurture a feeling of “first love” towards the broadcaster. It provided their first window into the world during the 1980s to 1990s.
But the article concludes: “TVB is no longer the only choice of viewers.”
Chinese people are getting rich and their rising affluence has enabled them to look beyond local productions to satisfy their craving for TV dramas.
For sure, the observations made in the People’s Daily article are nothing new for Hong Kong TV viewers.
Hong Kong people are well aware of the deficiencies in the network’s drama productions. Many of them, in fact, become thoroughly confused after watching the shows.
Because of the management’s cost-control measures, only a small number of artists dominate the shows in primetime slots. As a result, viewers get confused after watching the same actor performing the roles of three different characters in three different drama programs in three hours in a single night.
The scripts used for these shows also suffer from scrimping. Writers work under severe pressure so they resort to “formula” dialogues. One very frequently used example is this actor’s line: “Are you hungry? Let’s cook instant noodles.”
Netizens have a field day compiling these overused lines from scripts of TVB drama programs.
TVB fans may still hold a little sympathy for the television network of their youth, but their dissatisfaction is mounting.
That could be the reason why many joined the protest outside the government headquarters in Admiralty three years ago after the government refused to grant a license to Ricky Wong’s Hong Kong Television Network, which could provide an alternative to TVB’s stale offerings.
One reason why many Hong Kong people tolerate the state of affairs at TVB, despite its irritatingly dull productions, is because they have recourse to a wide range of high-quality video content from all over the world via the internet.
Through the years, TVB’s ratings have taken a downward trajectory. Its average prime-time rating has hovered around 20 points, down from 28 to 30 points a decade ago.
The worst is yet to come, as more Hong Kong viewers take to the internet to satisfy their drama-watching craving.
In order to maintain its leadership in the global Chinese market, TVB has shifted its focus to China, especially following the transfer of ownership from Sir Run Run Shaw to a group led by Hong Kong businessman Charles Chan and, most recently, the entry of former Shanghai Media Group boss Li Ruigang as a shareholder of the consortium.
The presence of mainland investors should help TVB expand in the fast-growing mainland market.
At the same time, many Hong Kong viewers now view the network as an extension of China’s propaganda arm. Some have started calling the broadcaster “CCTVB”, a “branch” of the state-owned China Central Television.
The network’s apparent pro-Beijing stance and its tendency to avoid criticizing Beijing policies and personalities only serve to buttress this impression.
However, the People’s Daily commentary implies that TVB is not yet considered as one of the media horses in Beijing’s stable.
It also implies that Li Ruigang’s substantial influence and connections still have to benefit TVB in the mainland.
If that’s the case, then TVB appears to be in a limbo. It has failed to regain the excitement of Hong Kong viewers while still unable to take advantage of its considerable influence to widen its coverage of the mainland market.
While TVB’s ratings continue to slide, productions from Korea, Japan and the western world are catching up fast to gain the attention of Chinese viewers.
For example, Korean TV content distributors are willing to change their schedules to meet Chinese regulatory requirements.
In a way, TVB’s predicament mirrors the current situation in Hong Kong.
The city needs to strike the balance between upholding its own interests and fulfilling Beijing’s policies.
Like in the case of Hong Kong, the most important work for TVB is to maintain its uniqueness in value creation, and not to blindly embrace the mainland market.
The People’s Daily article is a wake-up call for TVB management to seriously review its business model.
The mainland market may be huge, but TVB can only excel by maintaining its uniqueness as a Hong Kong broadcaster, and that means investing more money and talent to produce high-quality local productions.
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