ROBERT Chua is only half joking when he says he launched
the world’s first reality television show. Like the genre’s pioneering
programmes such as Survivor, the Hong Kong media entrepreneur’s reality
show also embraced a do-or-die theme. However, it took a rather
different form: one of his television ventures hosted talk-show
discussions about its own financial plight.
In 1998 Chua decided his Hong Kong-based satellite
television channel, CETV, should take to the airwaves with its
financial tribulations after it failed to secure rights to run on cable
networks and sell advertising slots in China — a serious financial blow
for the Mandarin Chinese entertainment channel.
The response to those broadcasts startled Chua. As he
struggled to keep the channel going, money started to trickle in from
viewers. The station’s struggle became a popular topic on Heart to
Heart, a CETV talk show.
In all Chua estimates the station received HK$1m
($128000) in unsolicited viewer contributions, including two crumpled
five-yuan notes (each worth about $0,60) from an elderly viewer in
China. Ultimately, a sympathetic advertiser paid up-front for
advertising worth $1m.
“We got calls of support from all over China and
southeast Asia,” he says. “But thank God I understand TV. I started
cutting staff and we survived.”
That episode — together with Chua’s earlier gamble to
start CETV with his own money — was typical of the 60-year-old
television producer’s knack for using every means at his disposal to
secure both financial support and audiences for his ventures.
Now, eight years later, he is making a more concerted
effort to share lessons in launching a business with his current
project, The Interactive Channel (TIC).
Unlike with CETV, Chua says his objective this time is
not simply to create a successful channel. He is just as interested in
using TIC as a model to show broadcasters, especially in China, how to
produce their own interactive programming. In return for helping them
get up and running, TIC aims to collect licensing and royalty fees.
“TIC is a laboratory,” he says. “It’s all tested and it works.”
TIC’s premise can be traced back to one viewer’s comment
to Chua during CETV’s darkest days: “It’s not your station. It’s our
station.” TIC believes viewers should contribute to and interact with
Each day TIC broadcasts a variety of talk shows. The
difference is that viewers can send in text messages or questions,
which appear on the left-hand side of the screen. A control-room editor
vets the incoming messages before they are posted for all to see — and
for the hosts to answer if they wish.
Audience members who have web cameras or
third-generation cellphones can also appear on screen to ask their
questions in person. Across the bottom of the screen a slot is reserved
for targeted advertising.
“This is the future of television,” Chua argues. “It will become the norm in a few years’ time.”
A self-confessed television junkie, Chua is qualified to
make such predictions. He began his television career as a 17-year-old
prop assistant at ADS Channel 7 in Adelaide, Australia, and four years
later was producing one of the most popular programmes in the history
of Hong Kong television. Enjoy Yourself Tonight, a five-day-a-week
entertainment and variety show, debuted in November 1967 and ran for
more than 20 years.
TIC, which broadcasts from a modest suite of offices in
the heart of Hong Kong’s central business district, is carried on two
Hong Kong cable networks, iCable and HKBN, which together reach 680000
households. When the station began trials in September 2004, iCable let
it broadcast on overnight slots on its 24-hour traffic channel, which
few watch in the small hours of the morning.
TIC launched formally in December 2004 and today
produces six to eight hours of live programming a day, filling its
remaining slots with repeats. In the afternoon it broadcasts Home Away
from Home, a programme popular with Hong Kong’s housebound Filipino
In the evening, the channel switches over to a mix of English and Cantonese talk shows.
Hong Kong’s various political parties have been quick to seize on the opportunity for exposure.
The Liberal party, a conservative, pro-business grouping, hosts a Liberals in Dialogue programme every Friday night.
Members of Hong Kong’s pro-democratic camps counter with
Fanning the Flames and The Civic Night on Saturdays and Monday nights
Even Leung Kwok-hung, an independent legislator and all-purpose rabble-rouser, takes to the airwaves every Friday night.
Leung, however, a committed Trotskyite famous for his
vast collection of Che Guevara T-shirts, recognises that football is
far more popular than politics. So every Friday he hosts an hour-long
preview of the coming weekend’s English Premier League matches and
other European soccer action.
But as well as investing his programming and scheduling
know-how into the venture, Chua has contributed an equally important
resource: his own funds. To date, he has injected about $4m into TIC
and is now casting around for investors.
Some of Chua’s friends have told him he is crazy for
starting ventures with his own money. That is what other people’s money
is for, they argue.
But it was just such a gamble that allowed him to start CETV.
In the early 1990s, he put down $400000 to reserve capacity on the Apstar satellite.
With access secured, he was able to round up $30m from
southeast Asian and American investors, and CETV was launched in March
1995. “As a businessman I was stupid and crazy,” he says. “But without
that (capacity) I had nothing to show potential investors.”
So for Chua, it seems only natural to be gambling
millions on a new television venture at a time when most people are
planning their retirements.
“I worked my guts out I enjoyed it so much,” he recalls of his career.
“It never seemed like work to me at all.”
Tom Mitchell. Financial Times
The long and winding road to a place on China’s airwaves
ROBERT Chua characterised CETV’s operating principle as “no sex, no violence, no news”.
While this made it palatable to China’s authorities,
securing so-called “landing rights” in southern China proved to be a
Viewers from China to Indonesia could capture CETV’s
signal with satellite dishes after it launched in 1995. But by 1998 the
station had still not secured government permission to broadcast on
cable networks or to sell advertising slots in China, its biggest
Told by government officials that having a mainland
partner would smooth the process, Chua dutifully signed up a
The consortium, however, did not deliver. “The money never came,” Chua says.
His back against the wall, Chua took to the airwaves —
or rather his wife, Peggy, did, with her much better standard of
Appearing on a popular CETV evening talk show, Peggy
Chua explained the station’s plight to its viewers. The audience sent
in money, which was followed by $1m worth of upfront advertising.
Robert Chua kept the station running long enough to seal a deal with
AOL Time Warner, which bought an 80% stake in CETV in June 2000.
Prior to that, only Chinese viewers with satellite
dishes could watch CETV. A formal agreement, however, was not signed
until October 2001, a year after AOL Time Warner acquired its CETV
Even after acquiring formal landing rights in 2001,
though, Time Warner struggled to make CETV work. In July 2003, it sold
its controlling stake to Tom Group, the Hong Kong-based internet and
media company controlled by tycoon Li Ka-shing. Financial Times