For more than a week the saga of the free television licensing has been dragging on in Hong Kong. Supporters of Ricky Wong's Hong Kong Television Network Limited are urging the government to revoke its rejection. More neutral people like me are calling on the government to disclose more details on its selection criteria and rationale of the rejection. Not surprisingly, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying insisted that the licensing process was fair and open, compliant with established procedures. His remarks were met with Mr Wong's announcement last Tuesday to seek judicial review on the matter.
While Mr Leung's bullheadedness is by all means irritating and incomprehensible by any sensible mind, supporters of Mr Wong or his company seem to have run out of sound arguments. Mr Wong has been extremely successful in mobilising and securing support and sympathy from the general public, but a few questions remain unanswered:
First, it is common sense for anyone who has some working experience that any form of licence application is subject to discretion of the approver and many other uncertainties. This means success is never guaranteed. Why a smart and seasoned entrepreneur like Mr Wong would invest so heavily and recklessly in his new venture as if rejecting his application were out of the question?
Second, Mr Wong said he received a call from a senior government official inviting him to apply for the licence some four years ago. And thus he did. His insistence that he was invited by the government to apply in the first place seems to imply that he was convinced that the application would never fail. Again, how can an experienced business executive like him be this simple and naïve? Does it mean there was some sort of behind-the-scene agreement between him and the unknown official?
The fact that no one in the media, the self-acclaimed vanguards of justice, seems to have asked these critical questions – at least as far as I can read although I haven't been following every single development very closely – also point to my third question: Do we really deserve better free television in Hong Kong? Isn't it obvious that many of us have a role to play in making Hong Kong television as complacent and appalling as it is?
Some said free television is a daily necessity in Hong Kong. The government's rejection of Hong Kong Television Network is denying its people's right to choose and access to television programmes of better quality. If this argument is valid, then why the so-called "inertia viewership” of TVB can last for some 30 years instead of three? It seems to me hundreds of thousands, if millions, lazy couch potatoes should bear more blame than the magnificent marketing (or brainwashing?) of TVB. In the 1980s and early 1990s when ATV was struggling for a larger share of viewership, how many of us ever paid any attention to their effort? How many of us still remember it was ATV that has first introduced the TV drama classics such as Dream of the Red Chamber, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, The New Legend of Madam White Snake and Endless Love? How many of us ever watched ATV's self-produced masterpieces of The First Emperor, Wu Zetian and Thirteen Emperors of Qing Dynasty in the 1980s?
The next question is: Why so many people are certain that Hong Kong Television Network will offer better programmes than the existing players? Just because of the previews available online? Is it wishful thinking or simply high-sounding expectations deliberately created by a mass mobilisation campaign? More importantly, how do we define "better”? In what terms? If we used to rate TVB higher than ATV because we were brainwashed incessantly to do so, are we now repeating the same mistake 30 years ago? How can we ensure that we are not?
Indeed, as the art editor of House News said in his blog, television is supposed to be manipulative, then why so many of us still watch and enjoy it? Why is it so irresistibly appealing for the eye and the mind? For anyone like me who has been fed by whatever was shown on television since childhood, you don't really need to read Theodor W Adorno before sparing a moment to ponder this question. Think about how your beliefs, knowledge, memory and perspectives of this world have been defined by what you saw on television over the years, you will know how powerful and manipulative television can be. In short, it has defined so many of us as we are today and it is extremely hard to break its shackles. Too many of us have taken television for granted, but not knowing that we can actually rectify the self-imposed injustice.
A recent article by Serah Kwong sheds some light on the fundamental problem of the stagnation of Hong Kong television – an indifferent, undemanding audience that appreciates familiarity rather than creativity; that does not protest against mediocrity or, even worse, vulgarity. But she stopped short of asking a more important question: Why the guaranteed access to primary and secondary education and free flow of information in Hong Kong failed to groom critical thinking, sound judgment and a craving for quality among its people? What has gone wrong? Does it have anything to do with our inherent culture and social norms?
Ms Kwong's article is a timely reminder of the importance of demand in quality assurance. Economics textbooks tell us that where there is demand, there will be supply. If we want television programmes of better quality, we have to think and define carefully what we mean by "better quality" and voice out the request. If we were easily satisfied with what is dumped on us, we will never get a better treat. In other words, if we want to make a change, let us change ourselves first.