It is difficult to imagine a pipeline without oil or a superhighway without cars. By the same token, an information superhighway ceases to be meaningful if it has no information. Content is at the core of the information infrastructure. Its importance is heightened as channel capacity multiplies. The introduction of a cable TV network, for instance, may increase the number of channels to as many as 500. What are you going to do with all these channels? How can you fill them up? Whoever has the content will be in an enviable position.
A new medium always has a novelty effect on people. The new information technology represents a new mode of information delivery which tends to charm its first users. However, such a novelty effect is short-lived, especially if the new medium is deficient in content. People may surf at will when they first come to the Internet. They may hop from site to site without a well-defined purpose. Eventually, they will develop a pattern of content preferences. Without the right content, they will simply leave the net.
Content may mean profit for a corporation. It can also contribute to a country's trade surplus. While the United States, for instance, runs trade deficits in many areas, Hollywood has been a strong generator of foreign currency. Many would have agreed with the Government that enhancing the service sector of Hong Kong's economy is crucial. Establishing Hong Kong as a genuine Hollywood of the East will certainly represent a great step forward in this direction. The content industry should be a far cry from the bubble economy. Although fantasies are what it may produce, it is a real industry.
Where is the Client?
Cultural identity has always been a problem for Hong Kong. In many ways, the Hong Kong identity is shaped by its media culture. Hong Kong people will have a stronger sense of belonging if it has a more developed content industry. This is conducive to social integration. Given the importance of content, Hong Kong should race to become a major producer of content. As Hong Kong's content industry is market-based, the first question that I want to ask in this regard is: Where is the client?
It is somewhat unfortunate that Hong Kong has a small domestic market. It has a population of only 6 million. In contrast, Hollywood has a domestic market of about 300 million people. A movie blockbuster can readily recover its cost if it sells domestically. The large domestic market also allows the economy of scale to work. However, Hong Kong has worked against all the odds of small domestic market and managed to become a regional exporter of audio-visual products. We should not slight the domestic market and should continue to build upon it.
In recent years, the uncertainty brought about by the 1997 question has resulted in short-sightedness and the dissipation of long-term planning among media operators. People were not even sure whether the freedom of expression, which is so important for content creation, would continue in Hong Kong after the handover. Meanwhile, some badly-needed regulations, such as the integrated Broadcasting Bill, were delayed in legislation. Now we have entered 1998, most signs seem to indicate that we shall continue to enjoy creative freedom. It is therefore time to get over the 1997 syndrome and make ambitious plans for the content industry of Hong Kong.
Open New Markets
Information technology tends to defy distance. For a place such as Hong Kong, which has a small domestic market, it is more important for it to exploit the insensitivity of information technology. Hong Kong's media industry has always treated Taiwan and other overseas-Chinese communities as an extended market. Taiwan has a population of about 25 million whereas SE-Asia has an overseas-Chinese population of about 30 million. Obviously, Taiwan is particularly important because of its size and relative affluence.
The largest potential market, of course, rests with mainland China, which has a population of over 1.2 billion. It is perhaps too early to talk of the whole of China as a market for Hong Kong's content industry. The Pearl River Delta, and the coastal and urban regions, by virtue of their relative affluence, are more relevant in this regard.
So far, there has been little success in cracking open the China market. To some, asking China to open its market to the outside media is like negotiating with a tiger for its skin. While that might be the case, I think the China market is so important to Hong Kong's content industry that we should never lose heart and should take new initiatives.
Now that Hong Kong and China are reunified, they belong to the same country. As Hong Kong allows China's media free entry, it is up to the SAR Government, the Trade Development Council, and the local media industry to persuade China to reciprocate. The SAR Government is intent on advancing the service economy of Hong Kong. There is perhaps no better way of boosting Hong Kong's media industry than by making the China market accessible.
Opening up the China market is mutually beneficial. While the Hong Kong media can gain from China's vast market and stock of talent and natural scenery, the Chinese media industry can benefit from the capital, ideas, and marketing know-how of its Hong Kong counterparts. After reunification, the success of Hong Kong's media should be much less alienating to China who, after all, wants Hong Kong to continue to prosper as a global city. Hong Kong and China share a lot of interests.
It is unrealistic to expect China to shed its worries right away. China will continue to show concern over the impact of the Hong Kong media on its domestic culture and politics. To make it easier for China, lobbyists can suggest that China open up in phases, from entertainment to information and to news, from quota control to free flow, and from joint production to joint venture and eventually to joint or free ownership. In addition, the opening can be scheduled so that the domestic media industry of China will have enough time to gear up for competition from Hong Kong.
One reason why Hollywood is so successful is that it has a critical mass of competent creative personnel. Where is Hong Kong's talent?
First, we have to produce communication professionals through the universities. Although the Chinese University and the Hong Kong Baptist University have communication programs, they have found educational places wanting. Each year, these two universities can produce a total of about 250 graduates. The number of places is not enough to meet the demand from students. The Chinese University, for instance, has about 70 places for new students each year. But there are hundreds of qualified students lining up for them. The admission standards of the Department of Journalism and Communication at the Chinese University are comparable to those of the Business and Medical Schools. Many good students have to be turned away because of the quota restraint. The industrial demand for graduates from the field of communication is equally keen. In a survey of key communication corporations in Hong Kong a couple of years ago, we found that an overwhelming majority of our respondents suggested that the university produce more communication professionals to meet their needs.
We have plans to increase our student quota and to add a concentration on multimedia production. However, given the budget constraints imposed by the University Grants Committee (UGC), it is very difficult to implement such plans. The UGC is going to cut the universities' budgets by about 10% in the next triennium. In addition, it refuses to support new initiatives by granting extra funding. It leaves it up to each university to take care of new initiatives through the internal reallocation of funds. Given the stringent budget and the keen competition among departments, one has to fight a very difficult battle to get anywhere. If the Government is really serious about turning Hong Kong into an information society, it should put its money where its mouth is. A place to start is with communication programs at the university.
Information technology education does not begin at the university. It starts in primary and secondary schools. I think that the SAR Government made an important move when Tung Chee Hwa announced in his policy address that the Government would finance schools in setting up their computer facilities. However, the Government appears to be ignorant of the importance of software and the sociology of information technology adoption. People just do not make good use of computers if they do not have the right software. How to train the teachers to train is as important as buying them the hardware. If these problems are not solved properly, the money will be wasted. This is a lesson that has been repeated in many parts of the world. We cannot afford to repeat it, particularly when Hong Kong is so late in joining the race to become an information society.
Hong Kong has its share of industrial talents who can be credited for making Hong Kong a regional exporter of content. However, the quality of Hong Kong media products appears to have been declining in recent years. For instance, in the 1980s and early 1990s, local movies outcompeted Hollywood products at the box office. The tables were turned in 1997. Meanwhile, criticism of television serials has been on the rise. The quality of local television programs can sometimes be amazingly low. People have begun to ask where the talent has gone. Talent is not trained in a day. It is important for Hong Kong to attract and to retain competent creative personnel. Updating the management of the media industry should help.
The content industry will have no future if its products are readily pirated. Piracy has been a plague both in Hong Kong and China. It serves to undermine the content industry as it robs innovators of any incentive to create. Ideas will count only when intellectual property is honored. The government of both Hong Kong and China should try to root out piracy, not as a response to pressure from the United States but as a way to nourish the content industry of these two places.
What kind of content should be produced? I don't pretend to know all the answers. After all, it is supposed to be largely the result of market forces. Here I would like to highlight a few issues.
A marked feature of new information technology is interactively. In the past, audience feedback was delayed and often aggregated. With new information technology, feedback has become immediate and individualized. But the underlying idea is the same: To provide the audience with the content they need. The interactive element in communication counts more than ever.
As a medium form, the audio-visual format such as movies and television are here to stay. The old stories will be told and retold in both traditional and new media. The important thing for Hong Kong is that it has new stories to tell. The huge success of the Titanic has led me to ask: Where is the Titanic of Hong Kong? Where is the story? Where is the capital? Where is the technology? Where is the talent?
The content industry is not just about stories. It includes services too. If we can ask where Hong Kong's Titanic is, we can also ask: Where is Hong Kong's Amazon Bookstore? Is it possible for us to pioneer a new service and let other people follow? Why should we be bound by the copycat mentality? Where is our creativity?
To conclude: The content is the message. We should race to be a content provider. That is the area where Hong Kong can and should excel.