Michael Chan, Hsuan-Ting Chen, and Francis Lee
Chinese University of Hong Kong
Chinese money continues to exert influence in Hong Kong’s news landscape as two prominent television broadcasters are the latest to come under the ownership of individuals and businesses that have substantive connections with Mainland China.
Shifts in advertising revenue continue to have large repercussions on the Hong Kong media landscape. Between 2013 and 2016, advertising revenue for TV and paid newspapers fell 13% and 32% respectively while online media increased 49%.1 Some brands have adjusted to the trend better than others. TVB continues to maintain its virtual monopoly on free TV news and has effectively expanded its presence online. Similarly, Apple Daily has an innovative multimedia motion news format that makes it the only established brand where usage of the online edition (39%) is higher than the print edition (26%).
However, even TVB and Apple Daily are suffering from declining revenues and profits. It is no surprise then that other legacy media institutions are facing even bigger challenges. For example, paid TV provider i-CABLE barely managed to stave off bankruptcy in 2017 as a group of investors injected new funds to maintain its operations, which helped save 2,000 jobs in the process. The presence of two minority investors from Mainland China in the group also raised some concerns on the increasing amount of Chinese money in Hong Kong’s media industries and its potential impact on editorial independence and the broadcasting of news and opinion that is negative or critical towards China. The same concerns were raised again when it was later reported that TVB was owned by a Mainland Chinese tycoon through a complex web of cross holdings among different companies.
Recognising the challenges faced by the broadcasting sector, the government in February 2018 released a consultation paper to gather public views on its proposal to liberalise broadcasting laws and loosen restrictions on cross-media ownership, which were put in place originally in 1964 to prevent a single entity controlling different sectors of the media industry. If enacted, newspapers, advertising agencies, and other media companies could acquire TV licences and have their own stations, which the government hopes would lead to more innovation and investment in the sector.
With the exception of Yahoo! News (39%), almost all the popular online brands are digital versions of established media outlets. Online alternative news brands including Bastille Post and Stand News maintain their popularity by targeting niche audience tastes, such as soft news and politics, respectively.
Established in 2016, HK01.com operates an online news site and a weekly print newspaper. It is currently by far the largest online news brand in terms of number of journalists hired, reportedly in the 400–700 range, and has quickly established its reputation, appearing in the latest DNR for the first time (17%) and surpassing other more established brands.
Online alternative news brands finally gained some formal recognition as the government decided to allow journalists from online-only news outlets to obtain press credentials to attend government press conferences and media events. Nevertheless, financial viability is a perennial challenge due to the lack of revenue. In April 2017, Initium Media reportedly had to lay off a large number of staff due to cash flow problems, while the English-language Hong Kong Free Press conducts a funding drive every year through crowdsourcing. Sources of funding for other brands are less transparent, however, and there is some speculation that Chinese money is also making its way into some of the online-only brands.
Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK) ceased its digital radio transmissions in September 2017, which marked the end of the short-lived and unprofitable digital radio era in Hong Kong that at one point had four stations offering 18 digital channels. Whilst the decision was expected, most news and commentary focused on the public broadcaster’s decision to end its 24-hour relay of the BBC World Service that had been broadcast since 1978 on its analogue channel, to make room for the state-run Mandarin China National Radio that was previously relayed through the digital channel. Earlier in the year, RTHK also replaced the broadcast of the Chinese government’s English-language channel (CCTV-9) in favour of its flagship Chinese-language channel (CCTV-1). This means that none of the three RTHK TV channels currently have dedicated English programming despite the government’s ‘biliterate and trilingual’ language policy that emphasises proficiency in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin.
Levels of trust in individual media outlets are neither surprisingly high or low. Notably, the most popular online-only outlets such as HK01.com and Bastille Post enjoy only low levels of trust when compared to other long-established media brands.
- Commerce and Economic Development Bureau, HKSAR Government, ‘Review of Television and Sound Broadcasting Regulatory Regimes’ — Consultation Paper. ↩