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Robert Chua

April 2004

At a time when most sons of good Singaporean families were expected to become doctors or lawyers, Robert Chua became intrigued by television at a very young age. He was so fascinated by this nascent medium that he was determined to learn every aspect of television production. His quest began at the young age of 17, and since then determination and a youthful excitement for the medium have followed every step of his 40 years in television.

Chua honed his television-production skills in Australia, working at Channel Seven. He started by sweeping the studio floors and then doggedly worked his way up the production ladder, acquiring a thorough, first-hand knowledge of studio production.

Armed with his array of experience, he moved back to Singapore in 1966, where he worked for the newly established Radio Television Singapore, as it was then known. A year later, Chua was in Hong Kong, where he helped set up the commercial station TVB, and created the show Enjoy Yourself Tonight. It was the first live show in Hong Kong and became an immediate hit, airing live five nights a week. The show is still on the air today, albeit in a somewhat altered form. It is the longest-running, most successful show in the history of television in Hong Kong.

In 1974, Chua left TVB, got married, and together with his wife, Peggy, set up a production company, the Robert Chua Production House Co. Ltd (RCP). It soon established a whole series of firsts. It was the most sophisticated production house in Hong Kong, producing commercials and corporate videos, and it became the first company to sell foreign TV advertising and U.S. programs directly into China.

Chua didn’t stray from his love of television production for long, though. In 1975, he produced a 26-episode, half-hour musical series called Robert Chua Presents. In 1977, he put his expertise to work again, producing the biggest multiscreen stadium event ever put together in Hong Kong, in celebration of the Queen of England’s Silver Jubilee.

Besides television, Chua’s other lifelong passion has been his interest in China. He says he started thinking about creating a Chinese channel in the mid-’80s, when he was hired as a consultant to a Hong Kong company, Hutchison Whampoa, to advise it on its application for a cable-television license.

Chua realized, probably long before many other media entrepreneurs, that China held the potential of becoming the world’s biggest and most promising television and media market. His first business trip to China took place in 1979, and he started doing business with China in a variety of ways. He had begun selling advertising time and distributing foreign TV programs for CCTV, plus a number of TV stations in Guangdong, Sichuan and Henan provinces, while Peggy was the host on English-language learning programs that RCP was selling into China.

By 1994, Chua’s dream for a Chinese channel and the means to distribute it—satellite television—met. But Chua’s boyish enthusiasm for the project far outpaced the financial burdens and realities of launching a channel. China Entertainment Television, CETV, launched in 1994. Its motto was the famous "No Sex, No Violence, No News," and was tailor-made not to upset Chinese censors. But from the very beginning, CETV was beleaguered by problems.

It’s not that the audience didn’t like the programming—much to the contrary, Chua and his wife were deluged with thousands of letters from viewers who loved the shows. The problems were financial. Chua had a hard time finding financial partners, and when he did, they didn’t work out, either wanting too much control of the channel or not delivering the cash.

Chua was very much hoping to get "landing rights" in China, meaning CETV would be given access to cable systems. But CETV was not approved, while Phoenix (a Rupert Murdoch joint venture) was. Chua was told by Chinese authorities that he needed a Chinese partner. And when he thought he had found one, the "partner" failed to come up with the necessary funding.

The problems multiplied, and in 1999 the pressures almost cost Chua his life, when he needed emergency surgery to remove a buildup of fluid in the brain. However, never one to remain idle, Chua was determined to move on to the next phase of his career, and he started tinkering with TV formats while he was recuperating.

In 2000, Time Warner came in as a majority shareholder of CETV, but management wanted control of the channel. Chua was forced to back down and eventually sold all his shares to Time Warner in late 2003. In turn, Time Warner sold a majority stake of CETV to The TOM Group, a Chinese-language media company.

In the meantime, Chua has started producing and selling formats throughout Asia, including successful shows such as Everyone Wins, You Be the Judge and Incredible Hong Kong. He is now looking to extend these local successes internationally. However, Chua is openly critical of some reality shows on the air today. He finds them of poor quality, lacking creativity and demeaning to both the audience and the participants. He believes that broadcasters are now looking for viable alternatives.

There are also plans afoot for an interactive channel for broadband cable, which he hopes to launch in Hong Kong by the middle of this year. Armed with his unflinching determination, he is resolved to make it work.

 

WSN: How did you first get involved in television?
CHUA: When I was growing up, every good family in Singapore wanted their boys to become either a doctor or a lawyer. But when I went to Australia to boarding school, I watched television and I liked it. Television was coming to Singapore just a year later, and I thought I’d have a look at it, just to be different.

I started [working in] television in Adelaide, Australia. I worked at Channel Seven for two years, and the advantage is that I began from rock bottom, sweeping the floor, then as a prop assistant, before working my way up to cameraman, floor manager, on-air presenter and finally directing. That gave me a very strong foundation in television—and an insight into every aspect of studio production. When I eventually went back to Singapore, it took me a year to get a job in local television—but in nine months I was working on all the top shows.

WSN: You then moved on to Hong Kong and helped make history there.
CHUA: I went to Hong Kong, and helped them start the commercial station TVB. I was one of the early pioneers and joined the station just before my 21st birthday. At that time, everyone who had come to Hong Kong had been trained in the States or in England. But by the time the station went on the air, and because of my experience in Australia, I was promoted to assistant program manager.

During this period I created Enjoy Yourself Tonight. I produced and directed the show, and in the process helped train people at TVB. Enjoy Yourself Tonight is…still Hong Kong’s most successful TV program ever. It started as an hour-long show but was extended to an hour and 45 minutes—and was live from day one, five nights a week.

I don’t know if I was brave—I just took a chance and did it. The general manager of TVB was Australian and he wanted to do something similar to a show that was on in Melbourne, called Melbourne Tonight. I took the concept of a live, five-nights-a-week show, but the content was totally different. We switched the formula. Instead of a talk show with some variety, we placed the emphasis on entertainment—singing, dancing, comedy and some interviews with stars. It was also around that time, in 1973, that I started the Miss Hong Kong Pageant, which is also still running today. The population in Hong Kong worked like crazy, and in the evening they just wanted to relax. Still, times have changed, and Hong Kong audiences now prefer talk shows. The show I created was right for the time—but Enjoy Yourself Tonight is now totally different. One has to change with the times.

WSN: After the success of Enjoy Yourself Tonight you decided to set up your own production company?
CHUA: When I left TVB, I married Peggy—in 1974 (January 10, 1974, 30 years ago). We started our own company—the first independent TV-production studio in Hong Kong.

WSN: At what point did you get the idea for CETV?
CHUA: CETV started in early ’94. In 1992 and ’93, satellite companies approached me to take a transponder. That’s when STAR TV got started. I didn’t go into it because the timing wasn’t right for me, and I didn’t think that China was ready for satellite.

How I got into CETV is really unusual—at least, I can’t imagine that anyone ever did it this way. When I first started CETV I had no financial partner. Obviously, to launch a satellite channel you need to work with corporations, and you need a lot of money. Anyway, Peggy and I put in a lot of our own family money to secure the transponder from APSTAR 1. All the big boys got on, like CNN, but I was the only private company that managed to get on. And it was the last transponder available. If I hadn’t put down a deposit, I would have lost the opportunity. After putting down the money, we then started looking for financial partners. Not exactly the most orthodox way of doing business—but then, I go with my passion and, if it feels right, then I dive right into it.

There were always funding problems. We had offers from a consortium comprising three companies: MUI (Malaysian), IFE (from the States), and Lippo (Indonesian), who came in but then later pulled out. They all wanted total control—which of course I couldn’t allow. So, I found myself another partner. We then had a problem in China with cable landing rights. [Murdoch’s] Phoenix had been given the rights to land, and so I thought I could as well. But the Chinese insisted that I had to have a local Chinese partner, and so I was forced to change partners. But the situation became even more complicated, and we had a real struggle for almost two years.

But during that time I was also lucky. Because I knew the TV business so well, I was able to keep CETV going for more than two years until I sold a majority stake to Time Warner. I kept costs very low and did live talk shows at night. We also got a lot of support and letters from the station’s audience—it really was very touching.

WSN: CETV really was a labor of love for you.
CHUA: Oh yes—I don’t think a normal person would want to do it that way! I nearly lost my life, and had to have emergency surgery. But Peggy was fantastic—she gave me all her support. After the surgery, my family, my father and my brothers told Peggy, "Let’s close CETV." But she wouldn’t let them. She knew I’d be unhappy. So she kept it going and helped me coordinate all the business dealings from the hospital while I recuperated.

Eventually, I was invited to Beijing. I talked with the authorities and we were allowed access to cable systems in Guangdong. That’s why Time Warner came in. We had a couple of other corporations talking to us at the same time, but I chose Time Warner because they were the biggest, and, I thought, the most sincere. But things didn’t work out as they should—we had very different views on how the station should be run. Time Warner really didn’t understand my vision of creating content and programming for the local Chinese population—so I sold off my share in the company. Still, the majority stake of CETV is now owned by TOM.com [which is owned by Li Ka-shing, one of Hong Kong’s richest men], and is now in good hands.

WSN: During the period that you were taking a backseat, you started thinking about formats.
CHUA: I can’t just be doing nothing. I have a lot of formats. The world’s only seven-nights-a-week quiz show, Everybody Wins, is on the air in Shanghai. It is so successful that they have already renewed for another year. But instead of seven nights, I’ve asked them to cut it down to five nights—that’s good enough—Monday through Friday.

WSN: You are also working on a new channel.
CHUA: Yes, it’s called The Interactive Channel, and it’s a 24-hour channel for broadband cable TV. I’m starting this channel with Chris Goss, who is my technical partner. We also have a financial advisor to help me get the first round of funding—although the start-up costs will be significantly lower than [CETV’s were].

We’ll have interactive games, and we’ll use SMS to play. We’ll have all kinds of shows, quiz shows, talk shows, karaoke, and a web dating show. Most dating websites on the Internet only use photographs. I want to use a web cam because with photographs you can cheat! [You can post a picture of a beautiful person that is not you.] Using a web cam, the presenter will check the people and the show will be different from usual web dating services. It will be totally web-based. There will also be talk shows and people participating by voting. I personally think this is the future of programming. Interactivity is the key—getting home viewers to participate.

WSN: Is this interactive channel for distribution in many territories?
CHUA: To start with it’s only for cable in Hong Kong, but I plan to license it to China and other countries. They will all be locally owned channels. I will eventually offer it on a franchise basis.

WSN: You and Peggy celebrated your 30th wedding anniversary this year. She has been a big part of your success, hasn’t she?
CHUA: She’s fantastic. Whatever I’ve done she’s given me all her support. You couldn’t ask for a better partner. We don’t have any kids, so she’s my daughter, wife and mother—all rolled into one! She’s wonderful. In fact, Peggy has lots of TV experience, as her first job was in television before she turned 18 years old, just before TVB was launched. She started as Hong Kong TVB’s receptionist, went into transcription and subtitling. She was a children’s show presenter, production assistant and then producer. She is also a fantastic program buyer and knows the local market’s taste and trends.

She’s very concerned about starting this new channel. But this project is smaller than CETV, and much more manageable. We’ve started looking for partners, and I’m confident we will find them. I’m determined to get it done, and I hope to get it launched by the middle of this year.

© 2004 WSN INC.

No part of this article can be used, reprinted, copied or stored in any medium without the publisher's authorization.

© WSN INC. No part of this article can be used, reprinted, copied or
stored in any medium without the publisher's authorization.

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