22 March 2019
Broadcast rights for major international sport events have become increasingly unaffordable for Hong Kong's free-to-air TV networks. Photo: Reuters
Broadcast rights for major international sport events have become increasingly unaffordable for Hong Kong's free-to-air TV networks. Photo: Reuters

Will HK’s free-TV viewers get to watch 2020 Olympics?

Although Hong Kong TV viewers will be able to watch the upcoming Asian Games 2018 — which will be held in Jakarta, Indonesia from Aug 18 — for free, there is however a question as to whether they will get to enjoy a similar privilege for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

It is because local TV networks are put off by the huge price tag attached to the broadcast rights, and the government is also unwilling to bid for them using public money.

Pro-establishment lawmaker Ma Fung-kwok, who represents the functional constituency of sports, performing arts, culture and publication, told us earlier that over the past few weeks he had been speaking with officials of the Home Affairs Bureau and the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau trying to find out if the administration will arrange for free-TV coverage of the Asian Games.

Unfortunately, the government appeared to be anything but keen on the idea and his efforts had ground to a stalemate.

It wasn’t until Cable TV stepped in and announced last Tuesday that it had secured the rights to air the tournament on its free-to-air channel that the issue was finally resolved.

Ma went on to explain that as the costs for acquiring TV rights of major international sport events have continued to soar in recent years, Hong Kong’s TV stations have become more and more reluctant to throw money at these increasingly unaffordable broadcasting deals.

As a result, in many cases local viewers can only watch the international games on subscription television.

Given that, Ma said that over the past few years he has been urging the government to intervene by means of, for example, subsidizing local TV networks in bidding for the broadcasting rights of the major sport tournaments so that the public can continue to watch them on free-to-air television.

In particular, as the government has been eager to promote sports in the city, allowing local viewers to watch the major sport tournaments on TV for free, he said, would definitely help enhance public enthusiasm in sports.

However, his proposal has remained unanswered so far as the government has been quite equivocal on that.

As Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po responded last week, he needed to “look into it further”, stressing that “the administration wouldn’t assume any active role in this matter in a casual manner, because whether or not to buy TV rights for international sport events is mainly a business decision made by private companies in the free market.”

Secretary Chan also added that he is deeply concerned about the possible ramifications, for the current state of competition in the industry, of government intervention in buying TV rights.

As we can see, it is apparent that the government has a lot of reservations about providing financial assistance for local TV networks for this purpose, probably for fear that it might draw accusations of transferring benefits to private broadcasters by boosting their ad revenues with public resources.

And some in the local TV industry aren’t optimistic about government support either.

From the perspective of local free-to-air TV networks, they would certainly welcome it if the government was willing to throw its weight behind them financially in bidding for these TV rights because it is no longer profitable to bring live coverage of international major sport events these days.

For example, even though Television Broadcasts Ltd (TVB) successfully bought the rights for covering live the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, the ad revenues the two events had generated could hardly cover the costs for buying the rights.

As a result, the company lost over HK$100 million on each of the deals.

It is estimated that the rights for bringing live coverage of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are likely to cost at least HK$100 million. As such, local networks will definitely have a lot of numbers to crunch and math to do before deciding whether to bid for them or not.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on July 25

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Columnist of Hong Kong Economic Journal.

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