Thursday, January 19, 2012

My ‘TVB Rant’ # 16: The 2012 HK Television Wars – What TVB Can Learn From Past History (the 1970s TV Wars)

2012 will definitely be an interesting year for the Hong Kong television industry, as there are some major changes coming down the pike that are sure to change the landscape of the entire HK entertainment industry for years to come.

What are those changes? Well, those who have been following HK entertainment closely (or even somewhat closely) should be aware that the HK government has agreed to issuing 3 additional free-to-air television licenses this year. Currently, there are only 2 free-to-air TV stations in HK – TVB (無綫電視) and ATV (亞洲電視) – so the granting of additional licenses means that starting this year, there will be 3 additional TV stations that will be giving TVB and ATV (mostly TVB, since ATV is pretty much non-existent now) a run for its money. In layman’s terms, this means that TVB’s 30+ plus year monopoly on the HK television industry will FINALLY be broken (more on this later).

Before I talk about the impact that these 3 stations will have, it’s only fitting that I first outline for readers who these new ‘players’ will be (plus I refer to them throughout the rest of this post, so it makes sense to understand who they are).


Here’s a brief introduction of the 3 companies that have applied for free-to-air licenses:

.-- First, there’s City Telecom (CTI), which is owned by HK businessman Ricky Wong (王維基). CTI is a telecommunications company that was established in HK in 1992 (according to Wikipedia, CTI is also a major broadband internet provider in HK and has more than 3000 employees working for them). To be honest, I don’t care all that much about the telecommunications part of the company, since I’ve never been a ‘tech’ person and all the IT talk goes way above my head anyway. For the purposes of this post, the interesting thing to know about CTI is that the company’s co-founder and chairman Ricky Wong has been in the news a lot this past year and is now probably more ‘famous’ than his company (kind of funny and ironic at the same time).

Those of you who follow HK entertainment closely will probably remember Ricky Wong’s name from his 2 week stint as ATV’s new chief executive back in 2008 (that’s actually how I first learned about him – prior to that, I had no clue who he was since I don’t live in HK and therefore am not familiar with the telecommunications companies in the territory). And many of you may remember his famous ‘exclusive’ interview with TVB’s former GM Stephen Chan (not once, but TWICE – he was interviewed by Stephen Chan both on his regular “Be My Guest” program as well as on the stage production of the show). I won’t go into detail about either incident, since it’s not relevant to this post -- but I will say that ever since that time, I’ve always felt that there was a bit of ‘controversy’ concerning Mr. Wong and so I never really had a good impression of him. Then last year, when he aggressively and actively ‘poached’ many of TVB’s employees and artists while they were still working for TVB (by sending mass text messages and offering large sums of money to recruit them), I had an even worse impression of him. With that said though, I don’t doubt that he is a smart businessman and so far, based on interviews and such, it sounds like he has definitely done his research (making note of TVB’s woes and widespread problems within the company) and is taking advantage of TVB’s recent struggles to build up his own TV empire.

The latest bit of news is that CTI has already recruited dozens of former TVB artists and behind the scenes personnel – they will start filming series in March with anticipated air dates for the series in September / October. Also, Mr. Wong revealed that his company is finishing up building a studio in Tseung Kwan O and once it’s completed, that’s where all of his series will be filmed (no, you didn’t read it wrong – he’s building a studio in Tseung Kwan O, which is where TVB City is currently located…so in essence, he’s building his studio in TVB’s backyard – wow, talk about ‘in your face’ competition…LOL!!).

.—The other ‘player’ coming into the game this year is Fantastic Television, which is owned by i-Cable Communications. I-Cable is a long-time cable operator offering subscription-based programming in HK and has pretty much been in existence since the 1950s. I will be honest and say that I don’t know a whole lot about i-Cable, since I’ve never really been interested in any of its programs (except for a few select ones that I tune into occasionally) – my knowledge of the station is pretty much limited to the information that I’ve read here and there in various sources (though I’m somewhat familiar with some of the program hosts at i-Cable).

In terms of its role in the free-to-air TV realm, I actually don’t have a whole lot of confidence in i-Cable, as the company doesn’t even produce TV series currently (its focus is mainly on news, sports, and entertainment / variety programs) and my understanding is that they function very similar to the cable companies in the U.S. in that they sell various channels and services to subscribers via a ‘packaged’ plan (though not sure if it’s going to operate the same way for its free TV channel). Also, out of all 3 companies that have applied for licenses, i-Cable has definitely been the least vocal in terms of revealing what its plans are once it receives its license (I personally have not heard much about the company recruiting artists or other employees or when they will start filming series). I guess we will pretty much have to take a ‘wait and see’ approach with them…

.—The 3rd company that has applied for a free-to-air TV license is HK Television Entertainment Company (HKTVE), which is owned by telecommunications company PCCW. Coincidentally, PCCW also owns HK’s other popular pay-TV service provider, Now TV. Though Now TV is also a subscription-based cable operator, the difference is that subscribers pay based on individual channels rather than pre-packaged deals – plus there is more of a variety in Now TV programming, as they currently have the most channels of any pay TV provider in HK and many of their channels span the international realm.

Honestly speaking, if I had to pick between the 3 stations, I would actually pick Now TV (PCCW / HKTVE) as the most promising in terms of the free-to-air market, as it has a strong foundation currently with its programming (they already have some awesome interview programs and other informational shows that I enjoy watching). Also, don’t forget that Now TV has someone on their management team who has lots of experience and also pretty high status in the TV world – TVB’s former executive director of variety and special programs, Ho Lai Chuen (何麗全) – he joined Now TV last year and has pretty much become ‘top brass’ over there. Also, Ho Lai Chuen is VERY familiar with how TVB operates, as he worked for that company for close to 30 years before ‘jumping ship’ to Now TV – so in that sense, he not only has high standing in the TV industry, he has also established strong ties with many current and former TVB artists – which means that from a ‘recruiting’ standpoint, he’s definitely at an advantage. The reason I would pick Ho Lai Chuen over Ricky Wong is because so far, he has not done the ‘poaching’ thing like Mr. Wong has – instead, Mr Ho already stated that he will only seek out artists that have already left TVB and won’t purposefully ‘poach’ its employees.

Indeed, Ho Lai Chuen actually has some strong ‘supporters’ in his corner, as it is known that former TVB actors Bowie Lam and Wong Hei have already signed with his company (both had ‘fall-outs’ with TVB and ended their contracts). In addition, TVB’s 2 ‘golden producers’ – husband and wife duo Lau Kar Ho and Mui Siu Ching – have already signed with Mr. Ho’s company as well (both submitted their resignations to TVB a few months ago and will be leaving in February this year).


Ok, so now that everyone is familiar with the new stations, let’s go back to the original topic at hand…

The addition of 3 new TV stations will definitely mean a huge change for the HK television industry, which has pretty much been dominated by 1 television station (TVB) for decades. What does this change mean for audiences? Well, first and foremost, it means that FINALLY, audiences will have options – meaning Hong Kongers will have the freedom to decide which station’s programs to watch. No longer will audiences be limited to watching crappy programs that they don’t want to watch but still do anyway because there is nothing else out there. On a wider scale, HK will FINALLY be able to ‘catch up’ to other countries – HK is billed as one of the most modern, advanced nations in the world, yet when it comes to the television industry, it has been in the ‘stone ages’ for decades. I mean, come on now – which other modern nation out there still only has 1 television station for its entire population to choose from? I honestly can’t think of any!

Now, let’s look at the situation from the perspective of that ONE television station that has enjoyed a ‘monopoly’ on the HK TV industry for decades: TVB. While the addition of new TV stations is a ‘good’ thing from an audience as well as society perspective, it’s definitely a bad thing for TVB. Despite what their management may try to ‘fool’ some of us into believing -- that there are no problems with the way their company operates, that they welcome competition, that they have loyal audiences who won’t leave them no matter what, that the addition of new stations won’t impact them at all, etc. etc. etc. – the reality is that behind that façade, TVB has A LOT to worry about! (Since I sort of already went into detail about the internal problems that TVB is facing with many artists leaving and such in my previous post, I’m not going to rehash all that here).

My main issue with TVB is that as of right now, it does not appear that the company feels ‘threatened’ by the impending rise of 3 additional TV stations – it seems that they are still in ‘denial’ mode right now…I mean, how else would you explain why the company has yet to take any significant action to protect their assets? Looking at the situation from the outside (based on ‘statements’ that various TVB execs have given to the Media so far), I feel that TVB has been taking a ‘complacent’ attitude towards this whole TV war thing. Could it be that because TVB triumphed back in the 1970s (when the first TV wars took place) and have managed to dominate for the past 30 years that they feel as though history will repeat itself and they will come up on top again this time around? If that’s the case, then the management over there is tremendously short-sighted and foolish!

To understand this point, let’s go back in history to the TV war that took place back in the 70s between TVB and its 2 rival stations at that time, Commercial Television (CTV) and Rediffusion Television (RTV) [RTV is actually Asia Television (ATV)’s predecessor – the name was changed from RTV to ATV in the early 1980s].

RTV (麗的電視) was actually HK’s first TV station -- it started in May of 1957 as a pay TV station / cable operator offering various news and other entertainment programming to audiences on a subscription basis. As the territory’s first (and pretty much only) TV station at the time, RTV was able to enjoy a ‘monopoly’ of its own for close to 10 years (keep in mind that this was during a time when the television industry was just getting started in HK). Unfortunately for them, the ‘monopoly’ was short-lived because in November 1967, the territory’s second television station came into the picture: Television Broadcasts Limited (無綫電視). TVB took the region by storm pretty much because right from the start, it offered something that RTV did not have – transmission of television signals without the need for wires/cables [note that I’m not an electronics expert so I might not be using the correct tech jargon here…but I’m sure you get the picture…]. In fact, TVB’s Chinese name came about precisely because of this ‘unique’ (at the time) quality [the characters ‘無綫’ literally mean ‘no wires’] – of course, this also mean that TVB was able to offer programming for FREE, hence making it the first free-to-air television station in HK. As if that weren’t enough, TVB also started broadcasting in color almost from the getgo (RTV was still broadcasting in black and white at the time) and didn’t just offer news and variety programs, but also hit the floor running by producing and broadcasting its very first TV series in 1968. As much as I despise TVB nowadays, I have to admit that the company’s founders – Sir Run Run Shaw (邵逸夫), Lee How Wor (利孝和), and Sir Douglas Clague (祈德尊) -- were truly quite smart in the way they handled the startup of the company…it’s obvious that they did their research and so were able to target RTV’s ‘pain points’ almost immediately (unfortunately though, can’t say the same about Shaw’s wife Mona Fong or her current management crew, who have pretty much run the company into the ground this past decade!).

So where does CTV (佳藝電視) fit into all this? Well, CTV didn’t actually start up until September 1975 as the territory’s 3rd free-to-air TV station (RTV converted to free-to-air programming in 1973, so it is considered HK’s 2nd free-to-air TV station). In comparisons to the ‘intelligence’ of the TVB founders, CTV’s founders / management probably did not think things through as well because less than 3 years after it started up, the company went back bankrupt and the TV station officially closed down in August 1978 [TVB ended up buying up some of its assets]. The ironic thing is that even though CTV was the least stable television station financially, they actually had many of the most talented artists and behind-the-scenes personnel working for them at that time (most of whom joined either TVB or RTV after CTV closed down) -- as a side note, here are a few names of former CTV artists whom I’m sure readers will recognize: Michelle Yim (米雪), Lau Kong (劉江), Helen Ma (馬海倫), Yeung Chak Lam (楊澤霖), Lawrence Ng Wai Kwok (伍衛國), Teresa Mo (毛舜筠), Paul Chun (秦沛), Law Lok Lam (羅樂林), Carol ‘Dodo’ Cheng (鄭裕玲), Chun Wong (秦煌), Lau Dan (劉丹), Sharon Yeung (楊盼盼), Melvin Wong (黃錦燊).

Based on the above history, it’s obvious why TVB was able to triumph over CTV, but what about RTV (ATV)? With RTV’s ‘rich’ history of being HK’s first TV station, how did they end up with the short end of the stick so to speak and essentially allow the ‘underdog’ TVB crush them all these years? The answer: COMPLACENCY and ARROGANCE. I remember reading about how back in 1967, when TVB first came into the picture as the first free-to-air TV station in HK, the management at RTV took on a very 'complacent' attitude (since RTV was HK's first television station and had been in existence since 1957, albeit they were a cable station, not free-to-air) -- the management even gave an interview to the Media in which they basically looked down on TVB and claimed that they were not a 'formidable opponent'....having that mentality in mind, RTV not only refused to go the free-to-air route (they didn’t do so until the 1970s), they also jacked up subscription prices (stupid move) and continued to broadcast programs in black and white when TVB was already broadcasting in color (another stupid move). Of course, when RTV’s management finally ‘woke up’ and tried to turn things around in the 70s, it was already too late – TVB had already amassed a loyal following. (Since TVB was a 'free' station, it was natural for audiences to tune in when they started, even if it was just out of curiosity, to see what they would be able to do -- of course, TVB also had luck in their corner because back then, even in the late 60s/early 70s, they had the talented artists as well as the quality programs that kept audiences vested in their station). Then of course, going into the 80s, ATV didn't stand a fighting chance, since TVB was in its 'peak' era – after that, ATV continued to struggle (amidst financial woes and a seemingly endless change in management) to the point that the company is pretty much a ‘shell’ now and is rarely even mentioned nowadays. (To be honest, I actually feel that ATV may have had a chance back then if the station was better managed, especially after they converted to a free to air station -- but unfortunately, that wasn't the case....the bad management and poor business decisions made throughout the last few decades really succeeding in 'killing off' whatever potential was left).


So going back to TVB….

Interestingly enough, it looks like now, TVB's management is taking on the same 'complacent' attitude that RTV took back in the 60s/70s (or at least that's what they've been projecting to the public with all the denials about any problems existing in their company, etc.). I mean, seriously -- having been directly involved in the first television wars and seeing first-hand how their opponents ended up, you would think that TVB would have ‘taken notes’ and learned from past history NOT to follow in RTV/ATV’s footsteps. I guess what TVB doesn’t realize is that just because they won the ‘war’ back then does not mean that they will win it again now, especially given the fact that the environment is completely different now. Back then, TVB had the ‘upper hand’ because of a combination of factors – competent, effective leaders, quality programs, talented artists, etc. Nowadays, the general sentiment is that audiences are frustrated with the crappy programs that TVB has been churning out the past decade as well as the lack of talented artists that are being pushed repeatedly in our faces day after day….therefore, most audiences actually WANT to see a change -- plus audiences are smarter now in that most of us don't just blindly watch what TVB puts out, but also pay attention to what goes on behind the scenes at TVB (how artists are treated, how much they get paid, etc. etc.). Also, there's the whole Big 5 contract dispute thing as well as the Stepphen Chan corruption trial which really brought to light alot of the incompetencies at in a sense, the tables are turned this time around and the other stations (CTI, i-Cable, now TV) actually have the 'upper hand' over TVB -- which is why those stations have a higher probability of succeeding now whereas CTV and RTV didn’t back then.

I am going to conclude by saying that as much as I ‘hate’ TVB nowadays (well, more specifically, I hate TVB’s management and politics), I can’t help but still hold out hope that the company will reform and really start taking this ‘war’ seriously – after all, I would like to think that my family and I didn’t support this station for so many decades for nothing!


  1. nice post! even though i've seen so much of these news these past couple months, i never really focused on them too clearly.

    although TVB needs some competition for it to improve, like u i do still hope that it comes out top though. i just cnt imagine TVB becoming the next ATV..

  2. Another great article and analysis!

  3. Agree with DTLCT on your indepth analysis and insight on this article. What a shame your articles are not being published in some reputable HK or international newspapers to reach more readers. I've learned more from your articles about HK entertainment industry than from those sensationalized and often times inaccurate online news reports. Good help is hard to find these days, and fast food style news reporting is no exception.

  4. @Snow: Thanks! I know what you mean -- there's been so much information floating around recently with regard to this topic, it's kind of hard to wrap our arms around it....that's sort of why I decided to do this post so that all my thoughts would be in one place.

    I actually can't imagine TVB becoming the next ATV either, though to be honest, it truly does look like they are going down that path based on my observations so far. It's really a shame that TVB has such crappy a long-time TVB supporter, it pains me to see how badly they've deteriorated....

  5. @DTLCT: Thanks! I sort of jumped around at certain points....hope it wasn't too confusing! :-)

    And as always, thanks for bearing with my 'long' ramblings...LOL!

  6. @Tamaya: Thanks for the compliment! Definitely appreciate it! Now that I think about it, my 'TVB Rants' would probably make a good monthly column....LOL....

    Like you, I'm also very particular when it comes to news reporting and seeing all those inaccurate, "fast-food style" news reports out there really frustrates me to no end. It seems like very few people out there appreciate long in-depth articles anymore, which is definitely a shame because alot of times, it's those in-depth articles that provide the best insight into things. The truly sad part though is that it's so hard to find 'reputable' newspapers / magazines nowadays that are willing to stand their ground and NOT go the 'gossip / tabloid' route when it comes to reporting entertainment news (unfortunately, we live in a world where people willingly and wholeheartedly rely on tabloids such as Next Magazine or Sudden Weekly to get their 'fix' on the latest entertainment news).....ah well -- I may not be able to reach alot of readers with my posts, but to me, that's ok -- having a few people who appreciate my insights enough to follow my blog is already enough for me! :-)

  7. I think TVB can't survive with their current attitude of still making crap scripts and props and costumes compared to mainland/Korea who has already triumphed with super clear cinematography that resembles a movie, flawless make up, convincing sets and more attractive script and filming style. I'm not talking about silly idol dramas, after BBJX I'm randomly watching a "saeguk" or palace Korean drama right now and oh my gosh the quality is much more brilliant and the storyline is super engaging. There is not one single wasted or unnecessary scene! It's a far cry from TVB's 'grand production' palace dramas.

    With 3 more free TV coming to directly compete with TVB strongly and with TVB losing half of their manpower, TVB will jsut end up treating their artistes and staff of all levels like slaves and made their productivity suffer because they're not happy. TVB lost again.

    Their movie counterpart - Shaw Brothers is the same as TVB. Recently Eric Tsang revealed that he didn't want to make a LNY movie for 2012 because he can't find artistes since most people are too busy and already has other projects, but TVB/SB forced Eric to make one and he has only about 1 month to gather a cast, shoot everything, edit everything, promote the movie and publish a final product at local and regional cinemas.

  8. @zzxyz: So sorry for the late response!

    Anyway, talking about Korean dramas and how those are of a different caliber -- the latest news I read was that Ricky Wong is planning to air Korean dramas in the first half of the year (while the station's own series are being produced) to capture audiences, then once filming is complete, then they will start airing their own dramas. So it sounds like once again, Ricky Wong did his homework and knows what types of dramas will appeal to audiences.

    I'm sure that you are correct in that TVB will continue to treat their artists like slaves even with the addition of 3 TV stations because to be honest, long-time habits are very hard to break (since they've being doing the 'slave' thing for many years already). And even though they are giving practically every single artist and behind the scenes person more money now as a result of the poaching thing, the amount is still less than market value (cuz their price was so low to begin with) - plus for alot of artists nowadays, it's not always about the money...

    Yup, Shaw Brothers is just as bad as TVB -- especially now with Mona Fong at the helm and her posse (TVB's current management)carrying out the dirty work for her. I don't doubt for a minute that what Eric said is true....actually, it sort of reminds me of something that WAB's scriptwriter Zhou Yuk Ming revealed recently at a seminar: TVB management often forces the producers to use particular artists and even though the producers know those artists aren't fit for the role and won't work out, they have to use them anyway....

  9. As much as I hate TVB and so many of their scripts are "crap" I don't want any of these new stations or TVB to fall (ATV? maybe that station is hopeless I only supported them for my fav artist who are now gone)

    Any 1 station coming up on top would only mean Monopoly TVB NO.2 all over again! I don't want that, just want it to be like China and Taiwan where there are severa solid variety shows singers can go on to promote their albums and music! Also x4 the exposure for artistes!

    1. @sport3888: Definitely! That's why alot of people still have some reservations about CTI and its very 'public' attempt at trying to overpower TVB -- if CTI triumphs and TVB falls (which I doubt will happen), that will likely mean another monopoly and we would pretty much be back at square one all over again.

      I will say that one thing that does give me a glimmer of hope is that CTI does seem to be keeping to their word (at least so far) about allowing artists signed with their company to work for other TV stations (there have been a few examples of this already)...if that's the case and they continue with it, then it would definitely be more like the China / Taiwan (and even the U.S.) route, which would only mean good things for the HK entertainment industry.