New Hong Kong television licences must not be sold cheap

13 June 2013 21 h 30 min Comments Off

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(SCMP, Jun 11, 2013) The current licences for ATV and TVB will expire in 2015.

The publicity battle between three television stations hoping to start broadcasting on free-to-air channels is heating up amid talk that the government may grant new licences only to “winning” bidders.

The rags-to-riches media tycoon Roy Thomson famously described the ownership of an ITV franchise in Britain as a “licence to print money”. I would say his joy at his profits was evidence that a Whitehall bureaucrat got it wrong and sold his country’s patrimony cheap. Only the British treasury should have been able to print money from a television licence.

Let us remind ourselves here that the radio spectrum over our heads is as much a public asset as public land. They are both valuable assets and the public purse can derive a hefty proportion of its income from leasing them to private entities for commercial or personal use.

But one thing we would not do with a prize piece of development land is grant it at a steep discount to its market value, or for no money at all, to the person who comes up with the prettiest architect’s drawings for the building he plans to build on the site.

We may put some restrictions on the use of the site, and we certainly do impose building codes on it, but these are normal conditions of sale. When it comes to the sale itself, we talk only of money. If the site doesn’t go to the highest bidder, we make dark hints about going to the Independent Commission Against Corruption (that is if the ICAC isn’t too busy investigating itself again).

Another thing we avoid doing in property is holding back from selling as much of it as the market wants because we are worried that existing commercial holders may be unhappy with anything more than token competition. In property auctions, this argument carries no weight at all.

Yet, strange to say, it does appear to carry weight with the Office of the Communications Authority (Ofca), as evidenced by its thinking on the issuance of new terrestrial television licences.

We have two such licences in issue at the moment. (ATV and TVB have them.) Both expire in 2015. Three newcomers now want in, and it seems that Ofca wants to pick and choose between the candidates on the basis of the sort of service they promise to provide.

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