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Interview: Asian TV Pioneer, Robert Chua, Founder of The Interactive Channel
Robert Chua is often described as one of the pioneers of Asian television.
In 1967, he helped start up Hong Kong's first terrestrial TV station,
Television Broadcasts (TVB), where he created the show, "Enjoy Yourself
Tonight," which was not only the first program broadcast live in Hong
Kong, but eventually became Asia's longest running variety show. In 1974,
he started his own production company, Robert Chua Production House
(RCP), which in 1979 became the first foreign TV production and
advertising company to enter the mainland China market. In 1994, he
founded China Entertainment Television Broadcast (CETV), a
Chinese-language family entertainment channel which is transmitted via
satellite throughout China and the rest of Asia, and in which media giant
Time Warner acquired a majority stake in June, 2000.
Late last year, Chua soft-launched The Interactive Channel (TIC), a 24/7
cable channel that is notable for its cross-media approach to ITV and for
the degree to which it allows viewers to participate in its programming.
He recently spoke to [itvt]'s Tracy Swedlow about his reasons for
launching the channel, about its business model, about his future plans
for it, and more.
[itvt]: What made you decide to start The Interactive Channel, Robert?
Chua: Well, you see, I've been in television 41 years, now, and I've always
been able to predict or foresee the future of the medium. I've done a lot of
successful shows in the past, and I think my record shows that I can read
what viewers' needs are: I feel that this is definitely a time when people
want to interact more if they can. Part of this is the influence of the
Internet, which has made people more accepting of interactivity. So, I
think it's the right time for the new channel, because interactive TV is
here to stay. Viewers no longer want to be passive.
[itvt]: Which operators are currently carrying it?
Chua: HK Cable TV, which has 680,000 households, and HK Broadband
TV, which has nearly 50,000 households. So this gives The Interactive
Channel over 700,000 households.
[itvt]: Where did the idea for The Interactive Channel come from?
Chua: It just came to me, when I decided I wanted to do something
interactive. So I just went ahead. I think the timing is right, and I believe
I have some sort of instinct. So I started it with my own money, just like
when I started the satellite TV channel, CETV--though, of course, I ran
into a lot of financial difficulties with CETV, so we moved slower than
we should have; however I was lucky in that I later managed to get Time
Warner involved in that project. Of course, if I find a good partner to
come into The Interactive Channel, I think we'll be able to move much
faster there, too: a lot of things can be done if you have more money--for
example for a marketing budget.
[itvt]: How much money did it take to launch the new channel?
Chua: It cost over ? million to get it started, and, of course, a lot of
work: we started working on it full time early last year, and I've been
spending all my time developing it.
[itvt]: Why did you decide to start it with your own money?
Chua: I didn't want to have investment bankers coming in who would
only want to look at figures. People ask me, "Robert, let me have a
business plan. We'd like to participate." I say to them, "There is no
business plan. This is only for people who have a vision." I now have
the technology and the actual channel in place running 24/7 to show them,
but no revenues to show right now--though, of course, I know where the
revenue streams will come from.
[itvt]: I understand you eventually want to export the channel to other
Chua: Yes. I want to license the channel as a turnkey operation, including
both its format and its platform. It would include everything: templates,
technology, program formats, and so on.
[itvt]: And have you seen any interest in such an offering?
Chua: Yes. A company in Korea approached me very early and signed an
MOU to do a channel like this one. And we're also in talks with a company
in China, and there's interest from a couple of Asian cable networks: we'll
provide them with templates and formats, and they'll put local content into
[itvt]: Do you think the channel is appropriate for the US and European
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Chua: I think it is appropriate for all markets. Take, for example, our
multi-screen talk show format, "iTalk." It's appropriate for any country,
because what it does is simply ensure that a talk show is topical and driven
by the interests of the audience, whatever those might be. It allows viewers
to, for example, text in their questions, or to chat in the chat-room section
of the screen. Viewers can also call in with their videophone or 3G phone,
and get their picture on the TV screen as they ask questions and chat with
the show's host and guests. Internet users can text in messages to the chat
room, and also appear on TV using their Webcam to chat with the host and
guests. As a result, the host can see what's going on, and can ask or answer
relevant questions as the show progresses. And, at the same time, you have
real-time voting, so the audience and the hosts can know instantly where
the votes are going for the subject they're talking about.
[itvt]: So your live shows allow viewers to send messages that then appear
on the TV screen?
Chua: Yes. You can send messages using both SMS and the Internet: you
and I could be communicating on the TV, and you could be sending messages
from the Internet and I could be sending SMS messages.
[itvt]: Before we began this interview, you sent us a screenshot of iTalk.
Could you go through it and explain what's happening on each of the six
screens or "boxes" as I think you call them?
Chua: Yes. Box 1 is the chatroom box--it's where Internet users and mobile
SMS users can send in their messages. Box 2 is where viewers can see their
picture live on TV, if they call in by Webcam, videophone, or 3G phone.
Box 3 is for voting by Internet and SMS. Box 4 is for banner adverts or
promotional stills. Box 5 is for text messages that The Interactive Channel
scrolls to its viewers. And Box 6 is the studio floor.
[itvt]: Can you send in messages using the remote control?
Chua: Right now, we're working with an operator here in Hong Kong, so
that we can have certain applications for the channel on the set-top box,
such as voting. But my vision for the channel isn't centered around the
set-top box. I want the channel to be available to everyone, and I don't
want to have to work to make it compatible with all the different set-top
boxes that are out there. This is why the channel is designed to let people
participate via SMS and the Internet. We are a completely cross-media
interactive TV channel, and I believe we are the only one in the world
right now. Actually, to further this goal, we're talking to a radio station
right now, that would host a radio show on our channel.
[itvt]: How has viewer response been so far to the new channel?
Chua: Everyone who sees it likes it. Though, actually, to be honest with
you, we're still in the early stages of doing this right now. We're not
marketing it yet. So in Hong Kong not many people know about it, just
yet. We've done no marketing or advertising whatsoever. But, as I said,
everyone who's seen it has liked it. So that in itself is very positive for
[itvt]: Are you finding that the channel's interactive talk shows are
attracting a lot of repeat-users or regulars?
Chua: Yes. There are some regulars. Our technology allows us to identify
people coming in, so we know who the callers are and so on. Of course, we
cannot divulge or resell any of this information, because it's our policy to
keep all this confidential. But we do know who is participating and who is
[itvt]: In addition to talk shows, what other content does the channel carry?
Chua: Other than the live shows, there are SMS-controlled games. Although
these have been available for some time already in Europe, this is the first
time they've been offered in Hong Kong. So people in Hong Kong are
experiencing something totally new for them. As I just mentioned, many
of our shows let people appear on TV via their Webcams--and, of course,
all this, along with SMS and Internet voting and on-screen chat, is all very
new to people in Hong Kong. We're also going to be doing match-making,
some type of interactive dating show. We want it to be serious: we don't
want to do another of those silly dating shows. We want serious people
who are looking for friends to be able to post their picture up on the TV
and talk to other people. What such a show would do is take Internet dating
to the next level. So people who are using the service on the Internet will
see an alert on the screen letting them know that, at a certain time of the
day, the service will be live on TV and so they'll be able to interact with
Also, on March 27th, we will be launching "iAdult," a one-and-a-half-hour
late night talk show that you could say is a cross between Dr. Ruth and Dr.
Phil. We are also planning to air a "Happy Hour" chat show targeted partly
at drinkers at home, but especially at drinkers in bars during the bars' happy
[itvt]: I understand you have an interactive show targeted at disabled people,
Chua: Yes. It's called "I Reach Out," and it allows blind, deaf and dumb
people to communicate on television.
[itvt]: As far as I know, it's the only interactive show targeted at the
Chua: Right. That's true.
[itvt]: Has it proven successful?
Chua: The viewership was starting to go up. But the problem was that,
unfortunately, the disabled organizations in Hong Kong are very
disorganized, and they were not really giving it support--although disabled
people who used it seemed to like it and participated in it. We aired it for a
month or two, but for the moment it is in hiatus. I couldn't get any funding
to really sustain it, and I had to underwrite it myself. Among other things,
the format allows non-disabled people to watch the show and understand
what's going on, and also to learn some sign language as you watch more
of the show.
[itvt]: What other interactive content are you planning to launch?
Chua: I have a proposal that I've been showing to potential advertisers.
Take a supermarket, for example: I could give one a half-hour slot at
8:00 every morning, which they could then use to show people all their
special offers for that day. Then viewers could call or SMS in to ask
questions about the offers and the supermarket's products in general, and
the supermarket could, in effect, chat with the public. The program could
also serve as "customer service" for the company, allowing it to hear
people's compliments or complaints. Another thing I'm trying to do is a
video social page, where people could pay a fee to have us shoot, for
example, a video of their mother's birthday party and put it on TV. Or we
could shoot and air people's weddings, so that they could tell their friends,
"If you can't come to our wedding, you can see it on TV or the Internet."
When we were shooting it, we'd do interviews. For example, we might
interview a couple who are getting married, and ask the groom, "How
did you woo your wife?" He might say, for example, "I gave her 100
roses every week," and the audience will be very touched by him--far
more than if we were interviewing a movie star, who might give the same
answer, but who probably wouldn't be believed. People want to see real
people on TV, and see how they celebrate major events in their lives.
Actually, we'd prefer it if people shot these videos themselves, as that
helps ensure that we get something real. We'd have commentators on the
show, discussing the videos, and the viewers would be able to send in
SMS greetings to the people whose videos were featured on the show.
This video social page project is something that I really want to do. I
like it, among other reasons, because it's very localized.
[itvt]: How will the channel generate revenues?
Chua: From revenue sharing with the mobile phone operators, from
traditional television advertising, and from banner adverts. As well as
from program sponsorship, like I just described with the supermarket
program. As far as advertisements are concerned, during a show,
advertisements will appear on one of the six screens, but between
shows they will be full-screen. We also will make money from what
we call "play points," which viewers can purchase on our Internet menu:
if you want to participate in the channel you buy these play points for
HK$0.50 per point--you can buy them in bulk, so HK$100 would get
you 200 points.
[itvt]: And these play points are only used when you want to participate
in the channel via the Web, correct?
Chua: Yes. If you're participating via mobile, you're billed by the operator,
and we and the operator share revenues.
[itvt]: Any other sources of revenue?
Chua: We can make money from downloads, such as mobile ringtones
and screensavers. We also eventually plan to make money from home
shopping. However, it would be a little different from other home shopping
services, because people would be able to interact, sending text to the screen
either by SMS or by the Internet.
[itvt]: How many people are currently working at The Interactive Channel?
Chua: Fewer than 20.
[itvt]: Are there any other projects you are currently working on?
Chua: Among other things, I'm talking to a terrestrial TV station, hoping
to work out a deal with them to broadcast an interactive TV format. I'd be
bringing something new to them and they'd share my costs. Such a deal
would make interactive TV available to everybody in Hong Kong. There's
also a telco in Hong Kong called CSL that wants us to make available
two- or three-minute clips of the highlights of our show, "iTalk," every
night, so that people can watch them on their 3G phones the next morning.
We should be ready to do this by next month. In addition, I am developing
a quiz/game show to be played and viewed by 3G subscribers only. I do
not know if anyone has ever created such a show that allows only 3G users
to participate or click into their personal 3G to view the show--as one
would on TV--to win prizes.
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