HK TV tries to recapture its glory days

Debut of ViuTV after ATV's exit sparks hope for industry shake-up

Fans at ATV headquarters before it went off air on April 1, after 59 years.
Fans at ATV headquarters before it went off air on April 1, after 59 years.PHOTO: SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST
Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang (left) and radical legislator Leung Kwok Hung travelling together in Portugal for the TV show Travel with Rivals.
Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang (left) and radical legislator Leung Kwok Hung travelling together in Portugal for the TV show Travel with Rivals. PHOTO: VIUTV

Like in a romance drama, the couple is shown in soft focus. The man is slightly greying. His companion has a full head of flowing locks.

But it is no woman and they have no amorous interest in each other.

The one with the lengthy tresses is Mr Leung Kwok Hung, Hong Kong's radical pro-democracy legislator who filibusters, blusters and has been arrested for rowdy behaviour at protests.

The other is Mr Jasper Tsang, who as Legislative Council president, has had Mr Leung frequently thrown out of the chamber. Known for his genteel demeanour and Mao suits, Mr Tsang is also founding chairman of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong.

As part of a TV travelogue, the odd couple was sent to Poland - at times squabbling, at others bonding over shots of alcohol - in a piece of ingenious scripting by Hong Kong's newest kid on the TV block.

  • Former ATV stars


    Kick-started his TV acting career at ATV where, from 1989 to 1994, he acted in series such as Who Is The Winner II. Met his wife Esther Kwan, a popular actress, there. Today, a respected actor known for his acting chops in films such as Unbeatable.


    Won Miss Asia 1995 at the pageant organised by ATV and stayed with the station till 2001. Acted in shows including The Snow Is Red. Joined rival station TVB and also acted in films such as The Storm Riders.


    Before Ip Man, he was ATV's resident martial arts star, headlining shows such as Fist Of Fury in 1995 and Kung Fu Master in 1994. Now an international star with hits such as the Ip Man franchise.


    Joined in 1988 and remained with ATV - out of loyalty, he says - until it folded two weeks ago. Hosted the Miss Asia pageants.

The show, Travel With Rivals, was shown earlier this month, as part of the debut of ViuTV, a subsidiary of telecoms giant PCCW.

It takes over from ATV, the world's first Chinese-language broadcaster, which went off air on April 1, after 59 years. With well-known dramas such as Fatherland and My Date With A Vampire, ATV was Hong Kong's long-time second free-to-air broadcaster alongside dominant player TVB.

The handover from ATV to ViuTV is thus a key milestone in the industry, say observers, one that symbolically marked the end of Hong Kong television's glory days, during which its TV stations were powerful and could dictate to viewers what shows to watch and when.

Yet, the entrance of ViuTV also offers some hope that Hong Kong television could make a comeback - if there is an overhaul of both the business model and creative content.

"The closure of ATV underscores the end of an era," says media expert Grace Leung Lai-kuen of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Long before the rise of Japanese and Korean dramas, Hong Kong shows were top of the pack in South-east Asia. From the 1970s to 1990s, they were beamed into living rooms across the region, exerting, along with Cantopop, an outsized cultural influence from Hong Kong.

Hong Kongers today nostalgically see that phase as the city's golden era - during which it consolidated its cultural identity, even as the economy was on an upward propulsion.

But from the late 1990s, ATV was beset by financial woes and a merry-go-round of investors and owners, many from mainland China. TVB effectively became the sole player and complacency soon set in. Viewers soon complained of formulaic shows and its ratings declined.

In March, TVB reported a loss of HK$4.3 million (S$753,000) last year - its first recorded loss since it went public in 1988.

Industry veteran Man Shu Man says: "TVB had no serious competition for too long. It needs to beef up its content and return to its roots as a good storyteller."

Look at Korean dramas, which are constantly innovating, he says, citing the current hit show Descendants Of The Sun, a love story set in a fictional war-torn country.

Scriptwriters in Hong Kong are paid HK$30,000 per episode, compared with US$15,000 (S$20,000) in South Korea and 200,000 yuan (S$42,000) in mainland China, he notes.

"You pay peanuts, you get monkeys," he adds wryly. And so, the best of Hong Kong talents are wooed to make their mark overseas.

Newer rivals, from Thai dramas to Netflix, are entering the regional scene.Viewing habits have also changed, with more people watching on tablets and smartphones.

"Power has shifted to the audience," says Dr Leung.

And so, the business model - and infrastructure as well - has to evolve, she says, to one that would maximise and support downloads.

The hope is that the entry of ViuTV will help shake things up, both by bringing in new ideas and by forcing TVB to step up its game.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 17, 2016, with the headline 'HK TV tries to recapture its glory days'. Subscribe