HKTV is officially done with TV as CA accepts terms of surrender

HKTV surrender
Image credit: Tala / Shutterstock.com

HKTV has officially ended its eight-year quest to break into Hong Kong’s free-to-air TV business after the Communications Authority (CA) accepted its application to surrender the broadcast license it only received less than a year ago.

It took seven years and a lot of legal wrangling for HKTV subsidiary Hong Kong Mobile Television Network Limited (HKMTV) to acquire the Unified Carrier Licence in the first place. The company applied for one of three new free-to-air broadcast licenses in 2009, but the government ultimately issued two licenses – neither of them to HKTV.

HKTV chairman Ricky Wong Wai-kay tried to work around that controversial decision by using the mobile TV license he had purchased from China Mobile Hong Kong to launch free-to-air broadcasts, but that ran into regulatory problems as well because the license only allowed broadcasts to mobile devices, and HKTV’s mobile TV network used the DTMB terrestrial digital TV standard that could also be picked up by digital TV sets in homes

After losing two court battles over the matter, HKTV eventually agreed to change the technology from DTMB to DVB-T2 Lite. The CA finally issued the company the appropriate Unified Carrier Licence in July 2017, and HKTV was in business.

But not for long. On March 27, HKTV reported almost HK$205 million ($26 million) in losses for 2017, and Wong declared he was done, according to the South China Morning Post:

Explaining the reason to end his lifelong free-to-air TV dream, Wong, who chairs HKTV, said the wait had simply been too long.

“The answer is as simple as ‘we’ve been waiting for eight years,’” he said.

HKTV submitted its application to the CA to surrender its Unified Carrier Licence the same day, and shut the service down a few days later.

The CA officially approved the application on Monday, which frees up the 678-686 MHz band reserved for HKMTV.

HKTV won’t disappear completely – the HKTVmall e-commerce site it started to supplement its OTT video service is still in business, and the company will continue to focus its efforts there, according to SCMP.

Still, it’s a shame that its bid to disrupt Hong Kong’s broadcast sector – which arguably needed disrupting – ultimately came to nothing.

Then again, that’s not to say HKTV had no impact on the market.

In the wake of the controversy over its failed license bid in 2014, HKTV took advantage of the publicity, took all the TV shows it had produced and launched an OTT video service that was initially very successful. That didn’t last long, but its first batch of TV dramas proved to be very popular, with social media buzzing about the US-style production values and innovative storylines – or at least innovative relative to broadcasting powerhouse TVB, whose programs had become formulaic and stale due to lack of effective competition. (At the time, its only free-to-air competition was ATV, which was struggling to survive and eventually shut down in 2016.)

Fans and some media critics credited HKTV for showing HK audiences that it was possible to break out of the TVB formula and produce compelling shows. So if nothing else, the company got to be the broadcast equivalent of an OTT player forcing TVB to up its programming game, and demonstrated the importance of strong competition in a market TVB had virtually monopolized for ages.

Which is really standard operating procedure for Wong, who has made a career out of disrupting incumbent markets, from City Telecom’s IDD arbitrage service in the 1990s to HKBN’s improbably successful fixed-broadband/IPTV challenger to incumbent HKT. HKTV may not have achieved what he wanted, but it still managed to rattle the establishment.

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