Time for freedom to rule airwaves

Editorial | 23 Feb 2018

The government is asking the public how the local media should be regulated or, to be more precise, how far existing controls should be liberated. Among other things, a major part of the public consultation is related to free television broadcasting.

The review is long overdue.

Since the emergence of new media, the environment for TV broadcasting has changed fundamentally, with dwindling numbers of viewers. In 2008, some 85 percent of those surveyed watched free-to-air TV every day, whereas in 2017, the figure fell below 72 percent. Those watching also spent less time in front of the idiot box. In 2017, they spent an average of 2.3 hours a day watching free TV - down from 3.2 hours in 2009.

It's unfair to keep outdated regulations that were only suitable in the old days.

It's also wrong for the government to favor any particular market player and, at the same time, ignore market changes that warrant new thinking on policies made many years ago.

Foreign investment in local free-TV operators has always been subject to strict restrictions that can cause problems for the operators in raising the funds needed to improve program quality in the face of increasing competition from new media.

Those restrictions were understandable in the past, when the free-TV model was so dominating that it could shape public opinion and impact local politics and government policies.

However, it's no longer as powerful now, due to the rising popularity of new media.

If nothing is done to bring the operating environment up to date, there'll be an uneven rather than a level playing field up ahead. Under existing regulations, a non-Hong Kong resident may own up to 2 percent of a free-TV station without having to seek permission from the Communications Authority.

Official approval must be obtained each time when the stakes rise to 2, 6 and 10 percent. The government is now saying the stakes can be relaxed to 5, 10, and 15 percent, respectively.

That's the right way to go, making it easier for the money-burning free-TV industry to seek new investment - without which it would be difficult for players to compete in the new business environment.

But is that all the government can do in relation to free TV?

Can it do more?

For example, on the question of embedded advertising, such advertising is common in overseas TV programs. Ask those who love watching South Korean dramas, and they can readily tell the productions are very often embedded with adverts.

As long as good taste is maintained, can the restriction be lifted?

Also, there's the need for TVB and the former ATV to air RTHK programs. This may have made sense in the past, because RTHK didn't have its own free TV channels, but things have changed, and RTHK does have its own channels.

So, is it still necessary to ask TVB, for instance, to hand over its profitable slots to RTHK?

It's time to move on and dispose of restrictions that are no longer needed.

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