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Chance for HK shows to reclaim limelight

Publication Date : 24-12-2013


Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, Connie Mok rendezvoused nightly with Hong Kong actors such as Alex Man, Carol Cheng and Bobby Au Yeung. Without fail, she and her family would sit in front of the TV set after dinner, catching dramas like The Feud Of Two Brothers or The File Of Justice.

"It was a necessity," the human resources executive, 33, recalled of their daily routine, laughing and crying with the TV characters.

Not any more. Mok has long dumped Hong Kong actors for more exotic eye candy; she now watches Korean TV shows on an iPad mini. "Look at these good-looking actors and

beautiful settings," she said, of her current obsession with The Inheritors starring Lee Min Ho and Park Shin Hye. "It's much better than our own shows."

Mok's betrayal of home-grown TV entertainment is hardly unique. Since its golden age in the 1980s when it held sway here and in the region including Singapore, Hong Kong television has slid in capturing the eyeballs and imagination of viewers.

At its height, in 1984, the stations captured over half - 53 per cent - of all households here that own TV sets during the primetime slot of 7pm to 11pm. This share has dropped to about a quarter by last year, said media expert Anthony Fung at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

But the impending entry of two free-to-air TV stations, injecting new competition for the first time in almost 40 years, is raising the question of what this means for Hong Kong television, and whether it could make a comeback - possibly marking a revival of the city's former cultural power.

"The sooner, the more, the better," said Peter Lam Yuk Wah, an entertainment industry veteran, of having new TV stations. "Competition is key for upgrading programme quality and for producers to innovate with new genres."

In October, the government announced that it is granting licences to i-Cable and PCCW, which will join long-time incumbents TVB and ATV in providing free-to-air TV.

This shakes up an industry offering stagnant fare as competition from elsewhere exploded. The introduction of cable TV in the 1990s brought nearly 200 channels to viewers; others download shows online and watch them on mobile devices.

Within the industry, ATV - a potential worthy contender to dominant TVB - has been roiled with financial difficulties and multiple ownership changes in recent times.

To cut costs, it resorts to imported programmes. Without meaningful competition, TVB churns out what viewers complain are predictable plots and low-brow variety programmes.

"Crap shows" is what Singapore-born Robert Chua calls them, citing game shows that require, for instance, contestants to guess the number of grapes another manages to stuff in his or her mouth. The industry pioneer who created TVB's popular Enjoy Yourself Tonight variety show in the 1960s blames "the lack of passion and bad management" in the industry's top echelons.

This is even as those from Taiwan, South Korea and even mainland China have surged ahead with new ideas and higher production quality, said another industry veteran

Lau Tin Chi, whose credits range from scriptwriting for the TVB's Hui Brothers variety comedy in the 1970s to hosting talkshows for ATV in the 2000s.

"Look at our food programmes. They are stuck in the past. American and Korean dramas are almost of movie standards, attracting the young, but ours are like afternoon soap operas which only housewives will watch," said Lau.

Allowing more TV stations is a step in the right direction, say the industry players.

PCCW said it will invest HK$1.3 billion (US$167 million) in the first six years to recruit talent and produce its own shows. It has finished filming its first drama series, Empress Wei Zifu, starring local actor Raymond Lam and mainland actress Wang Luodan in the titular role. Local and overseas productions will also be bought.

i-Cable will spend HK$968 million (US$129 million) in its first six years on programmes such as news, business and entertainment, but will not produce drama serials.

But those interviewed lament that Hong Kong Television, which had seemed dedicated to funding local productions, had failed in its bid to get a licence.

They also call for the government to stipulate that broadcasters limit the airing of imported shows, while reserving primetime slots for local ones. They should also commit to producing dramas, which cost up to 20 times that of other programmes, said Lau.

Whether such measures will mean a return of viewers to Hong Kong TV is unclear. But effort must be made, said Fung: "They may not return to watching Hong Kong TV, but we should at least protect local productions, as a cultural symbol of Hong Kong."

Mok, for one, is hopeful that more choices could herald better home-grown shows, though she is unsure if she will change her viewing habits.

"Times have changed. There are too many choices on TV, on Internet and even on smartphones," she said. "But at least there is now competition. Stations are not even bothered to make an effort unless they feel threatened."


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