Robert on the studio floor at ADS Channel 7, 1964.
Robert responsible for the day’s transmission, ADS Channel 7,1965
Robert was enthralled with the television industry and was willing to work long hours at any job if it meant learning a new skill. One of his keenest memories of his time at Channel 7 was the thrill of pressing the button for the closing sequence in the early hours of the morning after most of the staff had left the station for the night.
He gained a lot of invaluable knowledge and experience in that first job, but soon felt the need to return home to Asia. Back in Singapore in 1966 and aged only 19, he finally got a job in November that year, aged 20, producing shows for Radio Television Singapore. He specialised in light entertainment and popular variety shows.
While Robert waited to be accepted by Television Singapore, he helped out in recording audio tracks for local pop songs under the Philips label at Fajar Records. He also took part in producing shows such as pop concerts in Singapore and Malaysia.
Within the Singapore television industry at the time, Robert found there was a reluctance to trust such a young man to produce top programs. Then there was the issue of pay; as a non graduate he felt discriminated against both in salary and promotion. Despite these factors, he distinguished himself as the top producer in Singapore television, both in terms of content and sheer volume of production.
Then, in 1967 he was offered a young television producer’s dream job: helping to set up the first colour television station in Hong Kong at Television Broadcasts (TVB.)
He started at TVB as a senior production executive, then rose to Assistant Program Manager, Production Manager and, ultimately, Special Assistant to the Managing Director.
One of his first achievements at TVB was the creation of what became Asia’s longest lasting variety show, ` Enjoy Yourself Tonight (EYT.)` As soon as it was launched, EYT immediately shot up to the number one rated slot, a position it held for the six and a half years Robert Chua was with TVB. Starting out as a one hour show five nights a week, it was soon extended to one hour and 45 minutes per show.
Robert (center) with the EYT cast and crew, 1973
Robert with Chow Yuan Fat, 1999
EYT remains one of Robert’s greatest achievements. Without his talent for live shows developed in Australia and Singapore, Hong Kong television might have had to wait for years for a live-to-air show to develop.
EYT was revolutionary in Asia. It was broadcast live, which meant there was no room for production mistakes. It used multiple presenters – celebrities and new talents – mixed with light variety content, and it was shown five nights a week.
Critics said the idea would never work but the show ran in much the same form it was created for more than 30 years.
During his time at TVB, Mr Chua hired and trained many new television talents for roles in various shows including EYT.
After creating EYT and accomplishing an impressive list of other `firsts’ at the station, Robert left TVB and started up his own production house, Robert Chua Production House Co Ltd (RCP.) With his name already established in the local TV industry, RCP was a big success right from the start. There were no other freelance television facilities available at the time because of the high capital costs involved.
Starting out producing commercials and TV variety shows for broadcasters, advertising agencies and corporate clients, RCP branched out to documentaries, major audio visual productions, stage productions, and private work such as weddings and gala parties.
By the late 1970s RCP was producing at least one commercial per day as well as renting out its facilities to clients.
Eventually RCP became a big player in the broadcast advertising market in China. It was the first production house to shoot a TV commercial in China and brokered many deals for foreign advertisers looking for exposure in the huge China market.
From its base in a huge garden setting in Hong Kong’s plush Kowloon Tong district, RCP soon gained a reputation for producing the best film and video in Asia. Its clients included the major advertising agencies, big local companies and multinationals – RCP produced the first commercial for Coca Cola ever done in China.
Throughout his career, Robert Chua has always been receptive to approaches from prospective venture partners. In March 1977 Robert and a major electronics company set up Hong Kong’s first independent broadcast studio under the name of Conic TV Studio.
Housed in a 10,000 square feet site in the Kowloon Tong residential district, the company began producing commercials for Hong Kong television.
The studio invested in the latest videotape production equipment, equipping Hong Kong with videotape facilities equal to those available anywhere in the world. A sound library containing over 10,000 titles, the latest telecine machine and facilities for transferring film to videotape made the Conic TV Studio on of the most technically advanced in South East Asia at the time.
Robert Chua was a minority shareholder in Conic, and his relationship with the company’s management took a turn for the worse when Conic started competing with RCP in production, breaking the partnership agreement. In 1982 Robert took the dispute to the High Court in Hong Kong, seeking to wind up the company on the grounds of breach of agreement. He secured an out of court settlement which resulted in the sale of his interest in Conic. The company has since changed it’s company name.
RCP’s main work has been in the production of commercials and variety shows for the Hong Kong TV markets and corporate videos. The RCP-produced show “ Robert Chua presents…” was the first show in Hong Kong to include the producer’s name in the title. In 1976 RCP produced the 26 program “Variety 76” and “a Saturday Night Variety Show” for the station then known as RTV.
Other recent ventures have included a video magazine Mr Chua likened to Playboy and a home shopping TV program.
Mr Chua has also enjoyed success with information hot lines (also known as audiotext, or `900′ lines,) where members of the public call in for a fee. One of these services offered callers the opportunity to listen to the infamous `Squidgy Tapes’ which purported to show the British Princess of Wales flirting with a former body guard. Another great success was the infoline offering details of the sensational Hong Kong court case of the man popularly known as `Mr ABC.’ The service offered a report of each day’s Court Hearing before it was available in newspapers. Mr. ABC was convicted of posing as a movie producer to seduce young women.
Robert Chua was often called upon to do the nearly impossible and usually succeeded. In May 1977 he was appointed consultant to the Hong Kong Government Information Service to produce the biggest Government sponsored show Hong Kong had ever seen – the Silver Jubilee pageant to celebrate the 25th year in office of the British Queen Elizabeth.
Within just six months, Robert produced a show that was fantastic for its time, using state of the art “multivision” multi screen technology. The show drew thunderous applause from the audience.
Robert Chua has also fulfilled a pioneering role in broadcasting in China. In 1979 the Chuas pulled off an audacious coup. Learning that the television station for China’s Guangdong province was looking for an agent to sell advertising time to foreigners, Robert and Peggy deposited HK$1 million (then about US$200,000) into a Chinese bank as a guarantee of securing future advertising revenue. The gesture must have worked, because in April, 1979 RCP became the sole agent for the placement of commercials on Guangdong television.
The same year Robert Chua signed up Citizen Watch Co. to advertise on Beijing’s China Central Television, the first time the Beijing station had accepted any timecheck sponsorship. RCP also signed up Seiko to sponsor sports programs in Guangdong.
In 1981, Robert Chua produced the`ABC’ series of English learning programs which were aired all over the vast nation. Following up this early success, in 1982 he produced a series of China export promotion videos distributed free to Chinese embassies around the world. The 90 minute tapes gave foreign business people advice on how to do business in China, then highlighted specific Chinese products including contact information.
A glance at Robert Chua’s press file shows he has generally enjoyed a favourable press coverage. He had a taste of the opposite in 1985 after the broadcast of HongKong’s first a pilot English language situation comedy: `Guess Who’s coming to Yum Cha (a traditional Chinese lunch.)’ Hong Kong critics hated the show and slammed it for poor production values.
Robert Chua responded that it was the best effort possible given the limited budget. It was the first-ever attempt at English language production in Hong Kong. He had invested his own money to provide a new English program with a concept the rest of the broadcasting industry had ignored or avoided. The same pilot became a hit show when shown in the Malaysian market.
Never restricting himself to a single medium, Mr Chua has published many magazines and books in addition to his broadcasting product. Most recently he secured the worldwide rights to the English language version of ` Wrath of Heaven – Scandal at the Top in China,’ a chronicle of a major Chinese corruption scandal. Mr Chua says the publication was done to highlight China’s efforts to clean up its public administration, rather than highlight the problem of corruption.
In 1995, after 100 days of test broadcasting(starting 1st Dec, 1994), Robert Chua’s China Entertainment Television Broadcast (CETV) began screening around Asia on 11th March.
The Chinese language family entertainment channel was the result of years of quiet planning. Mr Chua was convinced his experience in the China broadcasting market and in general programming would let him succeed where others had failed. Rather than risk offending traditional Chinese values, he told anyone who would listed that his new station would carry “No Sex, No Violence, No News.”
As a result, he faced something of a programming challenge in finding enough interesting material to fill 24 hours of television per day. Like other broadcasters, CETV repeated blocks of programming but still needed at least six hours of fresh programming per day. Robert and Peggy made use of all their contacts around the world and managed to strike excellent deals on many programs. Soap operas from various nations documentaries, vintage movies and old Hong Kong programs formed some of the channel’s main content.
About a third of the content on CETV is original material – a Mandarin language version of Enjoy Yourself Tonight, for example, chat shows, variety shows and children’s programs. This original content is typically produced in Hong Kong using Mandarin speaking talent.
CETV produced over 1,300 hours of original programming, produced either in Hong Kong or co-produced with TV stations in China. CETV’s signal was carried free to air on the Apstar 1 satellite, along with CNN, ESPN, TNT and some Chinese educational channels. Apstar 1 gave CETV a reasonably big footprint around China and South East Asia. The potential reach was to more than 1.25 billion Mandarin speakers in China, Taiwan and Singapore.
However, Apstar 1 was less than ideal for real distribution. In the satellite TV business, the best way to guarantee broad viewership is to be carried on the most popular satellite – the one most hotels and other viewing centres aim their receiving dishes at. In the case of Asia, that means AsiaSat 1, the satellite which carries Star TV and other popular channels. Mr Chua applied for space on AsiaSat but was turned down by Star TV(Mr. Rupert Murdoch owns), which had power of veto. CETV is now carried on the AsiaSat 3S satellite.
Checking the number of viewers for a satellite channel is notoriously difficult, but Mr Chua has thousands of letters which prove CETV has many Asian viewers, especially in China. Being free to air, anyone with a satellite dish aimed at Apstar can receive the CETV signal, but ownership of dishes in China is tightly controlled and foreign broadcast signals are technically illegal. In practical terms, most viewers in China would therefore pick up the signal through their cable operators.
By extrapolating from data collected through viewers’ letters, and through surveys carried out by CETV, Mr Chua estimates CETV could be seen in some 33 million households in China.
The lack of hard demographic data about its viewership is a problem which affects every foreign satellite TV channel beamed into China. For CETV, it was one reason advertising was difficult to sell in the early years.
In financial terms, CETV was something of a black hole for the Chuas, who had invested millions of dollars of their own money up to June 2000. They originally held a 20 per cent stake in CETV, with private investors holding the remainder.
There have been other private investors involved in CETV, including the Indonesian Lippo Group, the International Family Channel from the US and Malayan United Industries. In November 1995 Mr Chua announced that these partners had agreed to buy 80 per cent of CETV for HK$230 million, but a year later the new partners were eventually bought out by Mr Chua.
By the end of 1997, Mr Chua was anxious to bring some mainland Chinese partners on board. Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV – with its mainland partners – had just been given access to local cable operators in the wealthy Guangdong Province.
Hong Kong had returned to Chinese sovereignty and there was a big advantage in being seen as a local operation in China, as opposed to a foreign broadcaster beaming in a signal.
In October 1997, Mr Chua announced the deal he had been searching for: a consortium of five mainland companies had agreed to take an 80 per cent stake in CETV. Unfortunately, the five companies did not pay up and the deal collapsed.
The media began declaring the imminent death of CETV, but it was premature. More than two years later, media giant Time Warner became a broadcasting partner in CETV in June 2000.
Robert credits the loyalty of CETV’s many regular viewers with giving him the moral support that brought him and the station through this difficult period.
The intense pressure of keeping CETV afloat nearly killed Mr Chua in 1999, when an excess of blood fluid built up in his brain. The broadcasting world very nearly lost one of its most creative talents, but Hong Kong’s top brain surgeon Dr Yu Chung-ping won the day. The fluid was drained, the five holes in his skull sewn up and he moved very quickly onto thinking about his next projects.
The time Mr Chua spent recuperating after his surgery was the first time he had taken off work since his marriage to Peggy in 1974.
Although he has now fully recovered, the experience taught Mr Chua to take time out from whatever projects he has on hand. While recuperating, he realised that in addition to television, the Internet was the future medium for his considerable creative talents.
He has registered several thousand domain names and is working on many ideas to develop potentially highly profitable On Line businesses. Robert is seeking to apply his considerable content-development skills to the Internet medium, an example of which is this home page. He is on the look-out for new partners, as always during his career, and is open to selected consulting offers.
On hand to train TVB cameraman,Hong Kong,1967
Robert Chua Productions’ Team Robert & Peggy (top row left third, forth), 1978
Robert seen preparing for EYT live commercial breaks in 1967.
Robert with Hong Kong’s governor Lord Maclehose, 1973
Robert Chua, speech to Entertainment and Media in Asia conference, Los Angeles, US, 1998.
The Chuas with China’s top actress of the 60’s 1998
Robert (left) in a TV show honouring comedian Cheng Kwan-Meng, 1997
TV show crediting Robert as the Producer Singapore, 1967
Newspaper cartoon Counter Attack! Fight Back, 22nd Oct 1978
EYT Reunion, 1994