By Robert Chua
These days I think I am probably best known as the pioneer of TVB in Hong Kong and founder of China Entertainment Television Broadcast ( CETV,) a Chinese language satellite TV network which began screening in 1995. The channel has had its ups and downs but with the new partner, Time Warner, its future looks good. Anyway I am convinced the concept of a regional Chinese language channel will be a winner, eventually.
I had been thinking about a Chinese channel since 1986 when I was hired as a consultant to a Hong Kong company, Hutchison Whampoa to advise them on their application for a cable television license.
But I have been fascinated about China since I was a young boy. When I first started travelling to China for business in 1979, the country was just starting to open up to the outside world. Crowds of people used to gather to stare at me and Peggy because of our modern clothes.
China had been more or less closed off to foreigners since the revolution in 1949 and neither Peggy nor myself ever expected to be able to visit during our life times. Peggy was able to revisit the home she grew up in in Shanghai and left at the age of two.
For me and Peggy, one of the most fascinating experiences was seeing soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army for the first time in real life. They looked so impressive, and so foreign – it really is hard to explain, but let’s just say you really knew you were in a different country when you went to China in those days.
Everyone dressed in blue or green, but with very few exceptions, all the people we met were very, very nice. And so curious about anything foreign they had never seen before: I once watched a crowd of more than a thousand gather around a couple of foreign carpet layers working at a new hotel. They knew what carpet was, but apparently no-one had watched it being laid by foreigners before.
Robert Chua realised before many others in the broadcasting industry that China was the world’s most promising big media and communications market. When he first visited China on business in 1979, television was still at a very basic stage, with groups of people gathering to watch black and white broadcasts on communal sets. Prior to his first trip to China in early 1979 Mr Chua clinched a historic deal, becoming exclusive overseas agent for advertising time on television in Guangdong, China’s richest province adjacent to Hong Kong.
His biggest China challenge was undoubtedly establishing the Chinese language CETV family channel in 1994. But the connection with China goes back much further. Among other things, Robert Chua was the first exporter of video and pinball machines to China, installing them in hotels.
Soon after leaving TVB and setting up Robert Chua Productions in the mid 1970s, Robert approached the pro-Peking newspaper Wen Wei Pao to broker a deal to advertise in China on behalf of Hong Kong based clients.
In 1979, RCP became the first media company to sell foreign TV advertising directly into China, securing exclusive deals with TV stations in Guangdong, Sichuan and Henan provinces. RCP landed an advertising deal with Citizen Watch on Beijing’s China Central Television and a sports program sponsorship deal for Seiko in Guangdong.
In a high profile deal for Hong Kong travellers, Robert introduced the first closed circuit TV on trains running between Hong Kong and mainland China in his capacity as consultant to the Chinese Railway Authority.
In 1981, Robert Chua distributed China’s first hospitality magazine produced outside the country – a cooperative venture with the main Hong Kong English language newspaper, the South China Morning Post.
The same year, he created and distributed a series of English learning programs in China. In all, there were 26 half hour episodes produced under the title `ABC .’ Hosted by Mr Chua’s wife Peggy, the series proved highly successful and was rescreened in many parts of the country.
In 1982, with the push to trade with China in full swing, Robert Chua produced a series of China export promotion videos distributed free to Chinese embassies around the world. The video was intended to familiarise foreign companies with the methods of doing business with China, and at the same time promote specific Chinese goods.
Two years later, Robert Chua became one of the first distributors of foreign TV programs in China, handling product from Lorimar, Metromedia and Silverbach Lazarus. By this time, his achievements in China were gaining recognition at the highest level. An official Communist Party newsletter, the `Information Reference’ with a daily circulation of 12 million copies lauded Mr Chua in a prominent article, describing him as a “TV Whiz Kid.’
Robert was also very successful as a China trader. With his keen eye for quality Chinese products, he identified traditionally prepared black silk as a product which would prove popular in foreign markets.
Robert ranks as one of his major moves in China the decision to visit China just one month after the Tiananmen Square incident. Global sentiment was running very high against the Chinese administration after June 4, 1989, but Chua flew up to Shanghai at the invitation of the Shanghai Ministry of Radio and Television, becoming the first media operator to visit following the incident.
Robert Chua’s achievements in China are many, but there is one that stands out far above the rest for its audacity: the creation of China Entertainment Television Broadcast (CETV.) A Chinese language family entertainment channel beamed by satellite into China and around Asia, CETV has often been described by Robert Chua as the “No Sex, No Violence, No News” channel.
A unique, 100 day countdown to the official launch began on December 1, 1994 and in 1995 CETV began full broadcasting in Mandarin language to audiences around Asia. In its first year of operations, CETV became the first satellite TV channel outside of China to jointly produce a live New Year variety show with a mainland province, Shandong, followed by other proviences.
To the critics who added “No Viewers and No Revenues,” to his description of CETV, Robert concedes that revenue has not reached earlier projections but he insists the viewers are there. He insists CETV has built up a loyal following among Asian viewers, including some 33 million households in China which could access the channel’s signal.
However, advertising revenue proved much harder to generate because of competition from other channels and a lack of hard data on viewership, something which affects all China broadcasters.
CETV has been a labour of great love for Robert and his wife Peggy. They invested millions of US dollars of their own money in the project, along with other private shareholders. Several past attempts to recapitalise the company failed, but media giant Time Warner became a broadcasting partner in CETV in June 2000. Although the full financial details of the deal have not been made public, Robert remains a shareholder and chairman and will continue to be responsible for the on-air programme content.
In 1997 in recognition of his contribution to China TV industry, Robert Chua was appointed guest professor of News and Media Studies at China’s Nanjing University.
The Chuas with a group of Chinese TV officials 1979.
I think of television as a service to society.
Robert Chua explaining the challenge of creating content for CETV while sticking to his `No Sex, No Violence, No News’ formula.
Robert and Peggy Chua,1998
Robert Chua on the chances of success for CETV, International Herald Tribune 1994.