Easing of embedded ads ban overdue

Editorial | 8 Sep 2017

It's all but clear that the ban on advertising embedded in television programs will be lifted. The only remaining uncertainty is to what extent.

Yet, it's still a bit weird for the Communications Authority to choose the present moment to release the findings of its opinion survey, ahead of a legal battle with Hong Kong's leading local broadcaster.

TVB is appealing to the courts for the authority's penalties in relation to two programs, including a variety show in 2015, to be overturned. During that show, artistes were shown eating KFC chicken in front of the cameras.

The authority fined TVB HK$150,000 over that "finger licking good" incident.

The timing of the poll's release is also peculiar since the findings, as announced, may actually weaken the authority's case when both sides face off in court. Nevertheless, that will be for the courts to judge if TVB decides to press ahead with the case.

The authority's survey was conducted from mid-February to the end of June, during which more than 1,500 people were asked their opinion on embedded advertising. Several focus groups were also formed to discuss the issue in depth.

The outcome was rather one-sided - nearly 42 percent of respondents found such advertising to be acceptable, while slightly more than 39 percent remained neutral. Only about 14 percent objected to the planting of ads in programs.

At the same time, 51 percent said there should be some restrictions after the ban is lifted.

For example, according to the poll, entertainment programs involving travel, talks with celebrities, and food and reality dramas are suitable for embedded ads, whereas news and current affairs programs aren't.

Embedded advertising in programs is an old issue in the TV industry's tug of war with the regulator. But it's now a pressing matter for local operators because of the surge of new media that aren't bound by the strict restrictions faced by traditional broadcasters. In turn, that brings unprecedented competition to the sector, threatening ad revenues of conventional operators.

According to some analysts, embedded advertising can cover 20 to 30 percent of production costs. For TV operators here, this is a largely untapped advertising source.

As far as the administration is concerned, it's obliged to create an environment adaptable to new trends. It's never too late to bring the policy up to date, although it's already commonly practiced in places like South Korea, where the entertainment industry is a tremendous success.

Some Korean productions can also be viewed on our TV networks. Descendants of the Sun, a highly- acclaimed TV series, is a classic example.

That being said, it doesn't necessarily mean the industry in the SAR will be given a totally free hand to embed whatever commercials it or its clients want in programs. Medical commercials, for instance, are usually off-limits in the overseas experience.

If the local regulator had been opposed to easing restrictions on embedded advertising in TV programs in the past, the opinion survey carried out virtually without public notice is the ladder it can use to climb down gracefully.

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