By Benny Lim
It is coming to the end of January and it is very likely that ATV will have to continue delaying the employees’ salaries. Furthermore, they have yet to pay the free-to-air license fees of HK$10 million (S$1.75 million) to the Hong Kong government. There has been a series of efforts to raise funds for the ailing television network, including a charity show. However, the only probable solution for ATV’s crisis is to attract substantial capital injections by new investors as soon as possible. At this point, there hasn’t been any clear indication of this possibility.
The UNESCO Hong Kong Association recently revealed that they are looking into ways to help ATV, and indicated the network represents Hong Kong’s intangible culture and heritage. Over the last 58 years, especially in the 70s and 80s, ATV (and its predecessor Rediffusion Hong Kong) has produced a number of programmes that were representative of Hong Kong’s culture. A lot of these shows depicted the Hong Kong spirit, which highlighted how the people of Hong Kong unite and work hard to build a better common future. But is ATV really an intangible cultural heritage? Looking at the perspective of Cantonese opera, which is Hong Kong’s first inclusion in the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list, it is clear that it is the art form that represents the cultural heritage, not the companies that produce it. There are many Cantonese opera troupes in Hong Kong, yet they do not earn the intangible cultural heritage status. ATV might be have produced commendable shows that contribute to Hong Kong’s cultural heritage. This can only suggest that these relevant shows deserve to be archived, but it does not mean that ATV naturally becomes a part of Hong Kong’s cultural heritage.
Being a free-to-air network, ATV has two primary functions – for mass information and entertainment. Both functions contradict the very existence of the cultural sector. Historically, the term ‘culture industries’ was a concept in response to fascism, where dictators used the mass media for propaganda. It was later used in America as a response against entertainment as a form of mass media that made the population indifferent to politics and incapable of making good judgments. ATV has always been a provider of entertainment through the offerings of television drama series, variety shows, talks shows and others. ATV also houses an artiste management unit, with their own exclusive artistes. In recent years, the network has also been accused of producing propaganda programmes that pander to Beijing’s central government’s policies. To sum up, it is ridiculous to link ATV to a form of cultural heritage, when its functions go against the very concept of the cultural industries.
Even from an entertainment perspective, ATV seems to be facing some crucial problems. Entertainment is about generating external emotional stimuli. From a television show’s perspective, if the audiences are engaged and entertained, they will be hooked to the show, and in the long run, will continue to support the network. In the last decade, ATV has significantly cut down their locally produced content, especially drama series. They have also been criticized for repeating programmes, and buying in B-grade foreign shows. While they have never really overtaken their main competitor, TVB, in all these years, ATV’s rating in recent years has been reported in some studies to be less than 10 percent. The network has also performed badly in advertising revenue. All in all, ATV has failed as an entertainment provider to generate pleasure and amusement to the mass audience.
In my opinion, ATV is neither a possible form of cultural heritage nor an effective entertainment provider. In other words, it is a failed business. And if there is anything positive and commendable from this whole saga, it is the ATV staff who has chosen to commit and to continue serving the failing company.
Benny Lim (Ph.D.) is a lecturer with the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Bates, S. & Ferri, J. (2000). What’s Entertainment? Notes Toward a Definition. Studies in Popular Culture, 33 (1), 15.
Chartrand, H. (2000). Towards an American Arts Industry in The Public Life of the Arts in America. Rutgers University Press.
Hartley, J. (2005). Creative industries (p. 1). Blackwell Pub.