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Looking at the decline and fall of television

By Robert Ireland (China Daily) Updated: 2016-03-18 08:06

The clock is ticking down on Hong Kong's venerable television broadcaster ATV.

On April 1, the city's first free-to-air broadcaster will "go to black", after nearly 60 years in the business.

Reportedly HK$2 billion ($258 million) in debt, the ailing broadcaster ran out of cash. ATV isn't alone, the slow demise of free-to-air broadcasters is a global issue.

Most of my work as a journalist has been in television news; starting with the grind of city council, the public school board, the police beat, gotcha questions to politicians and business types, white-knuckle airplane rides through the mountains, and all fueled by the evil temper of an assignment editor who was a poor loser. After local news, I moved on, working for four different networks, covering world events on three continents. By the time I reached the level of national news producer, it was pretty clear to me, television news had had its day.

Before I got my first job in television, I was required to become a qualified filmmaker, so I could produce the kind of visual stories that would grab the audience. It took time and money. Television revenues were falling. There were too many other options, the audience was split and production costs were going up.

Television news had become a clearinghouse for talking heads, and generic "wallpaper" video, that simply plastered vaguely representative pictures over a voice.

ATV in Hong Kong ran afoul of local government when it started failing its mandate to provide local news. I find it a little ironic, since I could write a thesis on the shortcomings of television news.

Looking at the decline and fall of television

It's not just television news, however, that's caving in, it's the whole business. What started with audience fragmentation, from too many choices of what to watch on television, was swept up in a tidal wave with the coming of smartphones.

Young people - especially the critical consumer group aged between 18 and 34 - don't watch much television. They prefer smartphones and other streaming devices, and this isn't just in Hong Kong. Free-to-air television is a fading start.

In the US, television viewing peaked in 2010 and has dropped every year since. In the UK, Tony Hall, director-general of the BBC, said last year that "young people ... are the most ready to move to online viewing" ... 25 percent (among 16 to 24-year-olds) and over the next few years, that is expected to reach 40 percent. In Australia, viewership dropped 6 percent between 2014 and '15. The global consulting company Accenture, in an April, 2015 study of 24,000 consumers in 24 countries, including China, reported that "nearly all age brackets reported double-digit declines in TV viewing globally".

I don't watch television and don't miss it. All the factors that add up to declining revenues, translating to lower quality programming, creating a snowball effect of falling audiences, have given us the era or Reality TV: cheap, low-budget programming that reminds me of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, whose inhabitants were kept docile and left free to pursue all that was mindless and trivial.

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