LCQ1: Domestic free television programme service licence applications
Following is a question by the Hon Frederick Fung and a reply by the Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development, Mr Gregory So, in the Legislative Council today (November 7):
Regarding the effective utilisation of the television channels and future development of domestic free television programme services (free TV), as well as the vetting of applications for free TV licences, will the Government inform this Council:
(a) given that the audience ratings of the programmes of one of the two existing free TV broadcasters have all along been low, whether the authorities have recently assessed if there is poor utilisation of television channels at present, the impact of such situation on the sustainable development of free TV, and if the two licensees have made efforts in promoting local creativity and programme diversity; if they have, of the assessment results, what measures they will take to enhance the utilisation of the television channels, and if they will consider revoking the licence concerned or re-tendering some of the channels; if they will not re-tender the channels, of the reasons for that;
(b) given the report that an applicant for the free TV licence has indicated that, despite the overwhelming public support for introducing new free TV, the Government has not yet completed the vetting of applications, and that the applicant has been waiting for more than 1 000 days for the result of the application, whether the authorities can list those previous projects the vetting of which has also taken such a long time; whether they have assessed the impact of such a long vetting time on the future development of free TV, and if the long vetting time will give investors an impression that the Government is exceedingly bureaucratic and inefficient, thus affecting investors' interests in investing in Hong Kong in future and undermining the competitiveness of Hong Kong; and
(c) what mechanism is in place to ensure that the vetting of applications for television licences will not be subject to political considerations and political interference, and to avoid the authorities responsible for vetting the applications putting unreasonable demands on the applicants and existing licensees taking legal actions to delay the vetting process?
The Government has always attached great importance to the development of the broadcasting industry. Our broadcasting policy is to promote the sustainable development of the local broadcasting industry and encourage fair competition, investment and the adoption of innovative technologies, thereby leading to the provision of more choices of quality programmes to the public. Under the technology-neutral regime enshrined in the Broadcasting Ordinance (BO) (Chapter 562) enacted in 2000, television programme services are regulated according to their characteristics and pervasiveness rather than their transmission mode, and licensees are free to adopt their own transmission means to deliver their television services. Indeed, we have all along adopted a liberalised, light-handed and pro-competition regulatory approach. As a result, Hong Kong boasts a vibrant broadcasting industry and a multitude of television and radio channels with diversified programming.
My reply to the three-part question is as follows:
(a) Hong Kong is a pluralistic society. Members of the public have diverse demands for television programmes. Since the variety and quality of television programmes are determined by a combination of factors including selection of materials and programme production, there can hardly be any absolutely objective benchmark in this respect. Viewership ratings are not the only indicator for assessing the variety and quality of television programmes.
Regarding the variety of television programmes, the two existing free television licensees are required under their licence to provide a diversity of programmes to meet the needs of different viewers. In particular, they are required to broadcast a minimum amount of educational, informational and locally produced programmes, and carry programmes produced by Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) during prime time.
After the mid-term review of the domestic free television programme service licences of Asia Television Limited (ATV) and Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) in 2010, the former Broadcasting Authority (BA) (i.e. the predecessor of the Communications Authority (CA)) recommended that enhanced programme requirements should be imposed on the two free television broadcasters. The former BA's recommendations were subsequently accepted by the Chief Executive in Council (CE in Council). These enhanced requirements serve to address the public's demand for more locally produced programmes as well as the public’s call for more educational, informational and RTHK programmes.
Furthermore, the CE in Council approved during the abovementioned mid-term review the former BA's recommendation to engage the public to collect their views on the quality and variety of the programmes provided by the two television broadcasters. The first such public engagement exercise was conducted in 2011. Through various channels, the former BA invited organisations and individuals from different sectors of the community to give their views on the quality and variety of free television programmes, and over 150 submissions had been received. The former BA also conducted focus group discussions, inviting participation of professionals, representatives of concern groups and members of the public of different age groups, so as to listen to their views on the programme quality of the two free television broadcasters. The representatives of the two free television broadcasters also joined the discussions to directly listen to the public views. Subsequently, the former BA sent the views collected in the public engagement exercise to ATV and TVB, both of which have responded to the views and taken follow-up actions.
The public engagement activities will be held regularly to enable the free television licensees to listen directly to public views. The CA will also continue to monitor the licensees' performance, expecting them to take into account public views in producing programmes and formulating programme strategies, so that their broadcasting services will better meet the expectations and needs of the public. As regards revocation of licence, any such cases will be dealt with in accordance with the relevant provisions of the BO and established procedures. However, there is at present no evidence suggesting the need to revoke any of the existing domestic free television programme licences.
(b) Under the BO, the CA shall consider applications for a domestic free television programme service licence and make recommendations thereon to the CE in Council. After considering the recommendations made by the CA, the CE in Council may grant a domestic free television programme service licence, subject to such conditions as he thinks fit specified in the licence. The former BA earlier completed the assessment of three applications for domestic free television licences in accordance with the BO and established procedures, taking into account various relevant factors, and made recommendations to the CE in Council on the three applications. The CE in Council is now processing the recommendations in a prudent manner. The outcome will be announced as soon as possible after a decision is made by the CE in Council.
Since the enactment of the BO in 2000 which sets out the prevailing broadcasting licensing regime, we have not granted any new domestic free television programme service licence. In other words, there is hitherto no precedent case for us to advise on the time taken by the CE in Council to consider free television licence applications under the current licensing regime. We understand that both the applicants and the public would like to know the outcome of these applications as soon as possible, but the Administration has to process all applications for domestic free television programme service licences strictly in accordance with the BO and established procedures. The Administration is obliged and required to process each application prudently in accordance with all relevant requirements.
(c) As I have said a number of times at the meetings of this Council, the Guidance Note for Those Interested in Applying for Domestic Free Television Programme Service Licences in Hong Kong issued by the CA sets out clearly the assessment criteria, which include the applicant's financial soundness and commitment to investment; the applicant's managerial skills and technical expertise; the variety, quantity and quality of programmes to be provided; the technical soundness and quality of the proposed service; the speed of service roll-out; minimum inconvenience to members of the public; the benefit to the local broadcasting industry, viewers and the economy as a whole; and quality control and compliance. The CE in Council will take into account all relevant factors and be guided by public interest in deciding on the applications. As I have also previously explained to this Council, the Administration has been processing the recommendations submitted by the former BA expeditiously and prudently in accordance with the statutory requirements and established procedures. I believe that the most appropriate course of action for the Administration is to continue to follow this established mechanism and handle the three applications in strict compliance with the procedures and the law.
Wednesday, November 7, 2012