Meeting budget more pressing than OscarsEditorial | Mary Ma 31 Mar 2021
The international news headlines said it all: "Oscars dumped by Hong Kong's TVB after China censorship order," "Hong Kong broadcaster drops Oscars ceremony amid Beijing backlash," "Hong Kong broadcaster drops Oscars for the first time in 50 years."
While it's hard for outsiders to determine whether TVB's decision to end its broadcasts of Hollywood's moment of global glory had anything to do with politics, it appears to make common sense to give up on an investment that yields little earnings. TVB insisted its decision was made on purely commercial grounds.
The Academy Awards, popularly known as the Oscars, was an international event, and that past tense is entirely intentional. Long gone are the days when live broadcasts of the ceremony - at least in Hong Kong - were a TV viewership hit that translated into a solid bottom line for broadcasters.
That TVB has continued to air the red-carpet event every year for just over half a century is enough to raise an artful eyebrow in some circles.
The difficulty for the station is obvious: its viewership was on the decline with the rise of social media in recent years.
Due to different time zones, Oscar diehards had to stay awake after midnight to watch the ceremony live while others had to resort to catching the replays at around dinnertime here.
According to an insider, viewership ratings for the broadcast dipped so low in recent years that even the best rating was about one point - a very low figure for any TV program to be beamed into households territorywide.
In light of such an appalling ratings figure, it would be well-nigh impossible for any TV operator to secure commercial sponsorship.
The Oscars were no exception here.
Were the SAR's top free-to-air TV station still profitable as it had been for so long in its heydays, it might still make good sense to pay for the right to keep up with the tradition.
However, for a company desperate to balance the books, it can be a totally different story.
It's understood TVB had been engaged in talks to renew the broadcasting rights, which are subject to review every two years. The negotiations had been under way for a while before Beijing was reported to have asked mainland media to cover the awards ceremony with caution to avoid controversies from arising.
The talks became tricky when the other side revealed to TVB that one of its Hong Kong competitors had also been negotiating with a better offer in mind and that TVB would have to offer a better deal if it wanted to win the contract.
The other operator was believed to be the ViuTV.
That was when TVB decided to quit the negotiations altogether. That was sensible on TVB's part as it is a publicly listed company and it's not in the shareholders' interest to splash huge sums on a project that's projected to earn little in return.
What was the outcome of ViuTV's negotiations for the Oscars?
By now, we know ViuTV isn't going to air the Oscars either. Does that mean its talks have collapsed as well?
Or, if not, does it mean that it gave up on the Oscars at the last minute?