Spurned by local viewers, Hong Kong TV stations look north for profit

Broadcasters are filling the air with more Chinese content to draw mainland advertisers.
By Sam Yuen for RFA Cantonese
2024.04.04
Spurned by local viewers, Hong Kong TV stations look north for profit TVB and i-Cable suffered a combined loss of US$173.2 million last year.
(RFA Cantonese)

Hong Kong’s television stations, crimped by declining earnings, have looked to fill air time with mainland Chinese-related content to attract advertising dollars from China, in a shift that feeds into a vicious cycle that could further alienate the city’s own viewers.

The gradual erosion of press and civil society freedoms in Hong Kong with the Beijing-imposed National Security Law in 2020 and the recent enactment of the second national security law, have all but turned Hong Kong viewers away from the TV stations’ increasingly self-censored news content, which only worsened their credibility and draw as a media.

i-Cable Communications, which runs the Cable News station that was once regarded for its insights and reports on China, saw net losses of HK$589.2 million (US$76.3 million) for 2023, even though the scale had narrowed by a third. 

The company said it was collaborating with the Hong Kong government as part of its commitment to society, to develop programs aimed at fostering a deeper understanding of the government among a public that has been increasingly distrustful of the authorities since the 2019 protests and the subsequent crackdown on democratic figures. The programs included one that raises awareness of national security in schools. 

Collaborations with the Guangdong Radio and Television Station to produce a series of programs were also underway to tap new viewers in the Greater Bay Area, a Beijing-designed regional bloc to integrate the once freewheeling Hong Kong into the mainland Chinese fold.

Public credibility of Cable News is seen to have hit a snag at the end of 2020, after i-Cable fired scores of journalists, among which its best investigative reporters for China news who had reported on issues that would have struck Beijing’s raw nerves, like human rights abuses and the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan city.

Morale and credibility have yet to regain, according to a current Cable News reporter who went by the pseudonym Wendy, evidenced by the current high turnover rate in the news department and difficulty to recruit journalists.

“Some reporters left for another TV station because their pay didn’t increase. But it’s also because the degree of freedom now is much lower than before. For example, [in the past] the China team would fly to Beijing to report in-depth. But now most of the reporters in the China team stay in the company to see what’s trending on Weibo,” Wendy said.

Picking up story ideas for China news reports from Chinese social media platforms like Weibo and WeChat has become a staple in newsroom operations. They are relatively safe as the posts would have been scrutinized by Chinese censors within the Great Firewall.

On the other hand, the risks of enterprise news reporting in Hong Kong have risen with last month’s swift passage of Article 23 – the second national security law – which expanded the scope of what constitutes a breach of national security by creating new offenses and increased punishment for offenders. 

But the vague language in the latest legislation also increased uncertainties and fear among local media practitioners on what is lawful to report and what isn’t. Journalists say the propensity to self censor or even not report is a new normal.

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i-Cable TV news journalist talks to the media after being laid off in Hong Kong December 1, 2020. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Survival of the biggest

In the past era of cable TV pay channels, Cable News was seen as Cable TV’s “trump card” to attract subscribers. However, in recent years, viewers have turned to other free online platforms for more balanced content, in part because broadcasters are under pressure to self censor in a relatively more controlling regime where company management intervenes to avoid offending Beijing. 

The broadcast of Cable News content has since transferred to i-Cable’s free HOY Information Channel.

i-Cable’s plight is not isolated. Losses also clouded Television Broadcasts (TVB), the city’s big brother in broadcasting, which reported a 5.5% drop in net loss to  HK$762.7 million for 2023. 

TVB, in which Chinese private equity firm CMC has a controlling stake, said it is also banking on the Greater Bay Area market to boost viewership. Its mainland China operations revenue is increasing, driven by sales from dramas co-produced with the Chinese companies.

To Yiu-ming, a former journalism professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, pointed out that once a TV station loses credibility for its news coverage, it also loses public support, and will have to rely more on mainland advertisers for profitability.

“You have all the power, but you have lost the masses. You can definitely decide who will head the news department, but you cannot decide how many viewers will watch your content. Now that the economy is growing slower, there will be less substantial pieces of advertisement available. And if there were, they’d go to television stations with higher ratings such as TVB. Which means, TVB, without the support of Hong Kong viewers, can still survive.”

Last month, the Hong Kong government swiftly passed Article 23, which expanded the scope of what constitutes a breach of national security by creating new offenses and increased punishment for offenders.

To Yiu-ming observed that since July last year, TVB's “Jade” and “Pearl” channels have successfully landed in the Greater Bay Area, directly obtaining advertising broadcast rights and revenue in the southern Guangdong province. This gave them an edge that others lack.

Translated with additional reporting by RFA Staff. Edited by Mike Firn and Taejun Kang.

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