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Public Outcry in Hong Kong After Upstart TV Network Denied Broadcast License

Over 400,000 people have signed a Facebook petition protesting the decision to reject HKTV's license application, and thousands more say they will picket government offices this weekend.

The Hong Kong government has faced a wave of complaint this week, after they rejected upstart television network HKTV’s application for a free-to-air license.

Established by local entrepreneur Ricky Wong, Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV) has hired hundreds of actors and TV professionals and produced more than 300 hours of original programming since it was founded in 2009, in a bid to take on the territory’s sole player in fictional television, TVB. Wong says he has invested more than $116 million in the venture.

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But the company’s hopes were dashed this week when Hong Kong’s Commerce and Economic Development Bureau announced that it would be issuing free TV licenses to the city’s two pay-TV operators, PCCW and i-Cable, but not to HKTV. The two winning networks will compete with TVB and Asia Television, which have been operating alone in the free TV space for decades.

Wong told Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post he was shocked by the decision, as it was the government that invited him to make a bid for a license in the first place.

"In 2009, the government called me to invite me [to bid]. On December 31, 2009, we submitted the application," he told the SCMP.

“The news itself is a shock to the management and to the staff as well…I believe this decision goes against public opinion,” he said in a press briefing, adding that he viewed the process as “unfair, unreasonable and non-transparent.”

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The decision has sparked outcry from local politicians, radio hosts and the Hong Kong public, who had all been enthusiastic about the prospect of an energized new producer of serial TV dramas and other high-quality, Chinese-language programming offers. In recent years, many viewers have complained about a decline in quality of TVB content. 

Politicians and about 400,000 local people signed a Facebook petition set up shortly after the decision. It demands that the government give a full account of the reasons for denying Wong's HKTV a license. Thousands have said they will protest outside government headquarters in Hong Kong this weekend.

Wong said at least 320 of HKTV’s 500 will have to be laid off at the end of the month. He said he may attempt to sell the TV shows already produced to other Chinese language markets. 

A source inside the government told the SCMP it has been careful about publicly indicating its rationale for the decision, as lawsuits are likely. A commerce minister did say, however, that a consultancy hired by the department predicted the city could not sustain five television stations. He said HKTV's bid was viewed as less strong than those of PCCW and i-Cable, both of which have been operating in the city’s pay TV space for over a decade.

Hong Kong Television Network is listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange. Its shares climbed 36 percent ahead of the government’s announcement, and then plummeted 39 percent on Wednesday after the license application was rejected, according the Wall Street Journal.