in Hong Kong by

ATV’s Next Chapter

Just like a heartbreaking TV-drama patient awaiting a kidney transplant on a hospital bed, ATV has been on a painfully slow decline for years.

As the broadcaster nears the final chapter in its decline – just 10 months away from going dark – a new investor has reached out, offering an olive branch to this embattled TV station.

Things appear to be taking a turn for the better, now that majority shareholder Wong Ben-koon had sold his stake in ATV to a new investor, who shows interest in applying for a free-to-air TV licence. But walking around the ATV facilities at Tai Po, the building is unusually quiet and shrouded in sadness.

Here, you can easily lose track of time; from the lobby all the way up to the meeting room, I come across only two staff, including the welcoming PR representative and a quiet receptionist. It’s the same two hours later when I leave the building.

As of this month, this 550,000 square foot studio is home to 550 staff, a serious drop from the more than 700 last September when the cash-strapped TV station failed to distribute staff salaries on time. Ip claims to be one of the victims.

“That’s the last thing we want to do,” he says with evident frustration.

“But this is one of our characteristics – investors distribute a certain amount of money to ATV on a regular basis, even monthly, to maintain salary distribution and to keep operations running.

“We can’t afford employee’s pay and monthly expenditure by relying only on our business; we definitely need an investor to maintain the ATV operation.”

Spending decades in the television industry, Ip was among the many who dreamt of breaking into the once glamorous industry, but one of very few who succeeded.

Single with no kids, the almost 30-year veteran at ATV may give you an impression of a calm and enduring nature, but he wasn’t always like this.

Fresh out of college in 1978, he rushed into a position as a research writer for TVB even before his graduate ceremony. It was a time when TVB and ATV were still in a tight race.

This opened up a fascinating insight into a whole new world for the 20-something, and he was given a chance to participate in a Christmas feature in Finland, handling the script, research and production.

But just over a year later, he moved to RTHK for a new children’s show, Banana Split, adding assistant director to his title. That didn’t last for more than a year and a half again.

He then jumped to a production house with lower pay, when the concept of music concerts in Hong Hong started to develop.

There, he picked up a lot of knowledge about the broadcast business – from film and documentary making, production work, event organising to managing artists.

“It was a happy time. I learnt the most during that time.”

His relationship with ATV was first forged in 1985 when his production house was given the project of ATV’s first beauty pageant Miss Asia.

But it wasn’t until four years later that he officially became ATV staff in 1989, when two of ATV’s major shareholders – the Lim family and the New World Group – acquired the production house.

He then applied for a job at ATV as assistant broadcasting executive director.

Everything seemed almost perfect. The time in ATV has been kind to him, as he says: “I felt like I was being guided throughout my entire career.”

What he didn’t expect was this symbol of Hong Kong TV broadcasting would one day rot in his hands. The decline of the ATV business stems from a swirl of missteps.

To compete and differentiate from TVB, the broadcaster had once given up producing drama in favour of monologues on current affairs, but to no avail.

“Without ATV drama, there’s no ATV artists, there’s no specific characters that tug at audience’s heartstrings, and that has always been TVB’s forte.”

He agrees this was a mistake as he came to realise current affairs monologues are hard to gain support in a city where the audience does not have “a thinking mind on serious matters” when watching television.

Also, he admits to a fatal mistake of ATV lifting ad prices a few years ago, a move that drove away a substantial portion of its advertisers. Since then, the business, along with viewership rates and ad revenue, has started to slide towards a slow death.

Compounding matters, the station was caught filling the airtime with excessive repeated reruns that even Ip agrees went too far.

The situation worsened when some of its current affairs programmes kept repeating alternately on six of ATV’s channels and saw a clash in the programme schedule. As a result, the station saw a huge drop in viewership rates.

Asked of his attitude towards this failing policy, Ip stutters: “The shareholders may have received split opinions towards our content, so they tried to fix it. This attempt was to no avail, but only to deepen audience’s revulsion against our content.”

At what should be the most difficult time for ATV, Ip was given an even more senior role as executive director in February 2014.

This makes his serious-sounding way of talking sound somehow saddening, as he has become a sympathetic character being caught in uncomfortable balancing acts between disappointed audiences and indifferent bosses.

Although maintaining the programmes have been repeated too many times, at the end, he caves into the shareholders’ wills and tries to justify it: “The concept of prime time, usually between 7pm to 11pm, has been changed; it now varies according to lifestyle – most people go home after 7pm these days. So we decided to repeat reruns in order to reach as large an audience as possible.”

It provoked a torrent of criticism, arguing repeats should only be shown on online channels, not on the coveted free-to-air TV channels. But again, they ran out of options.

“Honestly, our online channel wasn’t doing very well; what we did seemed to be the only way.”

So did he ever regret not staying at TVB?

“No point regretting, you can only examine what you’ve done. Staying at TVB doesn’t guarantee a future. I might have gotten fired, you wouldn’t know,” he chuckles.

At ATV Ip is accustomed to being in the thick of troubles, but even so, the fatal blow on ATV was a task too tough even for the well-trained fighter when a wage theft scandal broke out.

“We are not a normal company. We have history, we have responsibility to our millions of audiences. Especially when you know that more and more people are interested in investing, it’s hard to give up.

Despite a loss of creditability, value remains in the monumental ATV brand, and even though its fate is sealed, the brand will remain alive when the station goes into darkness.

“Selling programme rights and maintaining low ad prices could be the short-term solutions to keep the show running, though unlikely to last.

“As long as a new boss comes on broad, we see a possible path forward,” he says viscerally.

The once booming studio has become a sleepy suburb with too much space and too few people, and even a clock seems meaningless.

Possible strategies for the next step will be developing cable and satellite television, as well as event productions, he adds.

“We don’t stop here. We keep producing and trying new things.”

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.