This city is dying? This city is dead!

HKTV Ricky Wong in shock: Wong lost the free-to-air TV licence bid after he was
invited by a "senior government official" to join the game. No one from the government
explained why he lost.
My hands were trembling when I heard commerce minister Greg So confirm only two free-to-air TV licences were issued and Ricky Wong Wai-kay's Hong Kong Television Network's loss in its bid after nearly four years of waiting. I was in the office watching the live cast of the press conference while working on two full pages of analysis for the following day's newspaper, and my colleague Amy was down at the government headquarters questioning So. I clenched my fists in anger as the press conference live cast went on: Executive Council confidentiality principle, blah blah blah, followed by a load of rubbish that So kept repeating as if the replay button on an MP3 player was switched on.

October 15, 2013 was probably one of the darkest days in the history of Hong Kong. To many who never watched local television, don't speak Cantonese or read Chinese, this might have been an exaggerating statement. But let me tell you, it was the darkest day not because Wong lost his bid, wasting HK$900 million of his investment and the 100 hours of programmes, and sacking 320 TV talents. It was because this post-colonial Hong Kong government boldly showed us they didn't have to be accountable to the people. They didn't have to follow the system. They could do whatever they want without having to give any explanation. This incident has crushed the value system of Hong Kong as well as our belief in a fair governance system under the rule of law. This city is dying? No. This city is dead!

Since I rejoined the newspaper in 2008, TV has been an integral area under my culture beat. TV is not only entertainment or information provider. TV is culture: it is our first window to a world beyond our parents and families in our childhood; it reflects the reality and our way of living; and more importantly, it shapes our perspectives of the world through the ideologies presented in the programmes, contributing to the formation of our cultural identity.

But as I witnessed this never ending TV saga over nearly five years: from the free-to-air TV licences bid and the on-going ATV shareholders disputes to the row over the Olympics and World Cup broadcasting rights between pay-TV and domestic TV, I finally had to accept the truth that I refused to believe: a forward thinking vision, hard work, money and play by the rules no long work in Hong Kong. If you have a dream and the resources to realise it, the authorities can kill it. Thanks to this government body, Hong Kong has become a place where dreams are merely false hopes, a city that will be made up for soulless dumb people grew up with bad TV. It is infuriating.

The truth is, by issuing free-to-air TV licences to pay-TV operators i-Cable and PCCW, it will make no difference to the existing TV ecology: i-Cable and PCCW's free TV stations will only broadcast through their existing networks, which are no where near the coverage of TVB and ATV, which occupy the city's atmospheric spectrum. So most people will eventually be receiving TVB and ATV only.

Between ATV and TVB, one can simply forget about former. Once at an ATV press conference, controversial mainland investor Wong Ching raised his arm in a Nazi pose shouting out loud: "Long live ATV! Long live Hong Kong!" ("亞洲電視萬歲!香港萬歲!") I burst out laughing sitting among the crowd. Amid the never ending row and legal battles among shareholders, in particular Taiwanese snack tycoon Tsai Eng-meng and Hong Kong's Cha brothers, just how could anyone take this TV station seriously? And on the small screen it only recycles programmes (including old programmes from as early as the 1970s) and airs completely ungrounded biased commentaries that only those grew up on mainland China or North Korea wouldn't question. And yet, this crappy TV station lives.

And as for TVB, I believe some dedicated people working there still strive to produce quality programmes but the company is run by the principle of insatiable greed: the abundance of product placements in programmes from talk shows to drama series, the low production value possibly caused by the fact that the broadcaster needed to maximise its hardware (you can tell how fake the sets are). Shows are dumbed down to a new level where presentation of game shows, infotainment programmes and drama appeal to those only who have low intelligence or blind (e.g. I can see that you are making a phone call. Why do you have to say it out loud that "I'm going to make a phone call?"). These, as opposed to some programmes produced by HKTV, such as Borderline 警界線, in which the unlicensed station aims at a high standard of production value and intelligence set by US, Japanese and Korean dramas. The more dumb people watch it, the higher the ratings and the greater the advertising revenue TVB can pocket.

But the worst of all is that it presents a TVB reality that is far fetched from the actual reality: it is a monolingual and monocultural world. It's always about family disputes over inheritance. People of different skin colours are treated like aliens in TVB reality. When was the last time you saw someone ethnically non-Chinese speaking a different language to make a lead in a TVB local show? The increasing hostility towards ethnically non-Chinese and English speakers in Hong Kong partly came from the dominance of TVB reality. And if you want your children to grow up become a narrow-minded person with a skewed perspective of the world, make sure they watch TVB.

And growing up in such environment, how can you expect this city to become creative? How can you expect an audience used to dumbed down TV shows be interested in the performances and art exhibitions that will be staged in West Kowloon Cultural District in future? How can there be a pool of creative talents for the film industry and other cultural and creative fields in future?

But the worst of all is how quickly Hong Kong has fallen into a city no longer run by a system we cherish. Former Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Rita Lau said back in 2009: "I know there are one to two companies which are interested. Hong Kong has a transparent and fair competition environment and the law has no restriction on the number of licences [we can issue]. We welcome competition ... and we welcome determined companies to join in." [December 23, 2009, South China Morning Post] It was exactly what was stipulated in Hong Kong's television policy in 1998.

And just when and how this policy was changed without consultation and debate? How come recommendations to issue three licences were in place all the way until it reached the Executive Council? Who decided to go against the principles laid out in the past and the research commissioned? Who decided to slap the face of the government administrative officers that handled the case for years? Who decided to let the city's pro-government economic feudal lords - the Li family [PCCW, TVB (current boss Charles Chan is reportedly having close ties with Li Ka-shing)] and Wharf [i-Cable] - and mainland capital (ATV) to control the mainstream media and the ideology it carries? And coincidentally, Li family's Hutchison and Whampoa announced it cancelled the plan to sell supermarket chain Park'n Shop! Seriously do they treat us like fools?

Obviously there are no answers to these questions. But if we don't ask them now, we will never have another chance.

UPDATE: Unlike the other two stations that won the licence, Ricky Wong vows to focus on drama and entertainment programmes. He positions himself to be politically indifferent. News and current affairs programmes aren't his HKTV's priority. But just why he is the one who got ousted? Is it because someone realises the power of TV dramas and how they can shape our perspectives as well as our cultural identity? And could it be possible that someone out there doesn't want Hong Kong to retain its unique cultural identity? Here's a more detailed explanation in my SCMP blog Culture Club

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