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Media maverick Robert Chua

This week in The Asian Journal, we feature broadcast maverick Robert Chua, a pioneer at Hong Kong’s TVB station, creator of the Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant and founder of “No Sex, No Violence, No News” CETV satellite channel.

I’m Justin Teo and you’re listening to The Asian Journal here on Radio Singapore International.

RC: I applied for a job in TVB and I got it immediately. But when I went to Hong Kong, nobody had any experience in television. There were a few executives coming from various countries like Taiwan, Malaysia, America and the UK, but surprisingly, I had the most experience in TV amongst all down there.

Asia’s most experienced television executive Robert Chua is not your typical broadcast man in a suit.

He is a risk-taking maverick who runs his 20 hour days on a diet of passion and wit.

In 1967, at the grand old age of 21, Robert became the youngest executive at Hong Kong’s TVB station.

He started the wildly successful variety show, Enjoy Yourself Tonight, which lasted for over 30 years, and the rest was history.

But Robert’s illustrious Asian TV career had its humble beginnings Down Under.

RC: I started when I was just 17 years old. I was the youngest trainee and I’ll always be grateful to the Australians for giving me the opportunity. I worked there for two years and those two years were fantastic because I started from the rock bottom. I started by sweeping the studio floor and moving the props, then I became a camera man, floor manager, and so on, even putting commercials, television programs and Live shows on air. All that I did there gave me a fantastic experience.

After a short stint at Singapore’s national broadcaster then, RTS, Robert moved on to Hong Kong where TVB was being established.

Besides working on his best-known variety show, Enjoy Yourself Tonight, Robert also ventured into beauty. Hong Kong beauties that is.

Today, the Miss Hong Kong pageant is a stepping stone for all who desire fame and fortune, but back in the 1970s, Hong Kong women were a bit more shy.

RC: Hong Kong was growing, its economy was flourishing and there were all these beauty pageants but small ones in night clubs. So we thought we should do something more prestigious and outstanding on television. And of course TV now and then was worlds apart. When we first started, you virtually had to beg people to go on television. You’ve got to beg for them to bring their friends and their sisters to come along to the studio because back then, Miss Hong Kong and such pageants were not prestigious at all. They thought these shows had a cheap image back then. But now Miss Hong Kong is prestigious and successful but during the early days it was so hard to get people onto the show. The first year I remembered was so hard to get people on, you really had to beg.

One of the many stars whom Robert worked with was Lee Jun Fan, better known as Bruce Lee.

Robert did not pursue a career with Bruce Lee’s films but he does have fond memories of this martial arts legend.

RC: Bruce is a good friend of mine and in fact, he did ask me to produce a film for him when he was in Hong Kong. But then I turned him down as a friend because I knew I wouldn’t have been able to help him. Good thing he went to Golden Harvest because he needed someone like Raymond Chow who was an expert in the movie business. For me to produce a movie, it would not be successful even if there was talent because success in film needs the right marketing and people behind it. I was only for television. So they (Golden Harvest) were the ones who could make him successful in the movies because I don’t understand the movie business. But Bruce appears in my shows and I remember one occasion during our anniversary show, we had him come out of a birthday cake when everyone expected a beautiful girl to jump out. So we surprised the audience with Bruce Lee jumping out of a huge birthday cake, that is something I’ll always remember.

1979, Robert sought new pastures in China. It was a journey that began simply but he knew it was to be something special. Unlike China of today, the Middle Kingdom was just opening to foreigners in the 70s.

Robert secured exclusive foreign television advertising for TV stations in Guangdong, Fujian and Henan provinces.

As many Hong Kong businessmen were looking to enter the Chinese market, the Chinese authorities wanted to see commitment from this Singaporean pioneer.

So Robert put money to his words. One million Hong Kong dollars to be exact.

RC: Well, I started out representing Guangdong TV and its advertising because what happened was when I came back to Hong Kong from America, I noticed an advertisement in the Chinese newspapers recruiting someone to represent China’s Guangdong TV to bring in advertising. They wanted a guarantee of a million Hong Kong dollars. That was a lot of money back then in the 1970s. Of course, everybody then wanted to do business in China but no one wanted to put one million dollars in the bank to guarantee the deal. And that is because of business sense. It doesn’t make business to put money in something totally unknown when the market just opened. But maybe like a fool or whatever, I did it. I had the money because I had sold a property recently, so I had the cash to put into the bank. From a business angle, it was foolish. But I had the passion and I believed in China. So I put a million dollars in the bank to guarantee that I’ll bring in a million dollars for the year. At the end of the year I fell short of the target amount but the Chinese were so good, they even let me keep the deposit because I was the only one who showed good faith, prepared money to put into the bank and worked very hard for it. They didn’t forfeit me, they are entitled to do that, but they didn’t. They were rather fair at that time, and that was how I started my relationship with China. I’ve never looked back since.

The trust which Robert gained from his friends in China proved vital later in 1994 when he started China Entertainment Television or CETV.

CETV was known as the “No Sex, No Violence, No News” channel. While the Western media laughed at the Robert’s branding, he knew what was needed to succeed in China then.

RC: One must understand China. When I started this channel, I had this slogan, “No Sex, No Violence, No News.” “No News” didn’t mean I didn’t like news; news is my favorite program. But because at that time, news was so sensitive to China. To assure China, I told them I would not have news on my channel. No sex or violence is for cultural reasons because they don’t want to see sex and violence and I support that because there is too much sex and violence in this world now, plus China is more conservative. So my slogan spells out what my mission is – a total family channel. It worked out very well for us although when I first started, some people in the Western countries were laughing, saying ‘Robert Chua, no sex, no violence, no news, who’s going to watch. But they didn’t think about Disney. They have no sex, no violence and no news. Disney is a clean family thing. So just because you spell out something like that they think it’s funny. But somehow it’s very successful and frankly when I started, the response from the public in China was more than I expected. I was so surprise that I got gifts from the Chinese viewers who congratulated us on starting this channel. So we had a lot of loyal audiences from China.

Even with CETV’s loyal Chinese audience, Robert faced competition from local broadcasters and foreign TV licensees like Rupert Murdoch’s Phoenix Television.

CETV was on the brink of closure but Robert remained confident of pulling through those turbulent days.

RC: Somehow I always thought that I would be able to pull through but I left it to fate because I worked so hard for it and one thing for sure, had it not been for my experience and having someone who has run a channel, it would have gone bust by then because I had to cut down the number of staff. Then we did a Live show at night which ran each evening, starting with one hour to announce the possible closure of the station. And from that one hour show, the response was so good that we extended it to four hours. So that kept the station alive; the public support from all over Asia and not just within China. So eventually China gave us the landing into Guangdong which showed that we had the Chinese support at the end of the day. Then we sold the channel to AOL Time Warner and that’s how we managed to get through. But the lesson I learnt from that experience is that you need the funding before you embark on something like that because that on such a big scale. Based on the right business sense, I should not have started it. But I guess I followed my passions.

Despite the struggles from the CETV experience, Robert is now embarking on a new venture.

It is called the Interactive Channel.

Audiences will no longer be passive viewers of entertainment but they can engage the entertainment within their own homes on the Interactive Channel.

In a sense, the Interactive Channel follows Robert’s belief in ‘live’ productions.

RC: Well, this is the world’s first cross-media unlike what I call multi-media. And this is the integration of television, Internet, mobile phone and such which has been running for a year and a half now. If you can imagine Bloomberg panels with the information shooting out to you, we have a similar screen where people can SMS in or use the Internet to type the message in. People can chat at the corner of the screen, or interview and ask questions to the guests. At the same time, people can in through their 3G phones or the webcam and see their face on TV as they ask questions. People can also be polling at the same time. So if I’m interviewing you, people can agree or disagree on the topic of discussion. So everything is in real time.

Mr. Robert Chua will be presenting the Interactive Channel at the upcoming Broadcast Asia conference in Singapore.

If you’d like to find out more about the Interactive Channel, do visit tictv.com.

This has been The Asian Journal with me Justin Teo, join me next week for more stories from the region.

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