Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.
I was glad I’d been there before. Visiting Hong Kong a year after making my initial acquaintance on an Asia-Pacific Foundation of Canada Fellowship gave me deeper insight into the complex social and economic make-up of this crowded British Colony.
The few high-rise acres of Hong Kong Island and Kowloon are evolving faster than any place on earth. The Hang Seng stock index more than doubled in 1993 and rents are rocketing. The property sector rivals Tokyo as the world’s most expensive. Capitalism is rampant. Even the five star Hong Kong Hilton Hotel, build legs than 10 years ago, is now considered not tall enough and will soon be demolished for a skyscraper of at least 50 stories.
Hong Kong’s 150 years of commercial success is quickly becoming the model for China and the rest of the Asian community. Indeed, it’s expected that within a dozen years, half the wealth in the world will be generated in Asia, with Hong Kong as the gatekeeper.
China is currently taking a very special (and active) interest in Hong Kong as the date approaches for their take-over from the British (the 99 year lease expires in 1997). Because China itself is evolving so fast economically, most observers expect that the world’s most populous country will more resemble Hong Kong in 20 years than vice versa.
Canada is now well aware of the economic potential of this region. About 150 companies from this country have established regional headquarters in Hong Kong and about 50,000 Canadians now live in the Colony.
One of the new arrivals is Cliff Lonsdale, a former CBC-TV news executive in Toronto who decided to set up a North American format news operation in Hong Kong. Cliff and his partner brought their equipment from Canada and are using a small room in their high rise apartment on Aberdeen street to shoot and edit about 40 items per year for Prime Time News. They’re also beginning to market stories to other English broadcasters around the world.
When I was there, Der Hoi Yin (who also moved to Hong Kong from CBC Toronto with her businessman husband) was fronting a piece on the efficiency of the Hong Kong port system for PTN. Cliff and his free-lance operation will have plenty of stories to file over the next few years.
While in Hong Kong this time, I particularly wanted to visit the major broadcaster in the country, TVB. Because my series, ‘Street Cents’, promotes business literacy and entrepreneurship for young people, I hoped to interest TVB in the program. In addition one of my hosts, Benita Ha, was born in Hong Kong.
Most cab drivers don’t speak much English (Hong Kong is more than 90% Asian) so the concierge at my hotel had to write directions to TVB in Chinese. After a long $130HK ride I arrived at a huge complex of buildings and outdoor sets.
I was the guest of Carrie Yuen, the Executive Producer of Youth Programming. She showed me the layout with several huge studios (bigger than Toronto’s best) and a lot filled with mock buildings for Chinese dramas. She told me that some English TV was obligatory for the station but audiences were small. For instance, an audience of 5,000 was all that the lively teen music show, Zap Rap, could draw. News reports while I was in Hong Kong also stated that this obligation for English programming would diminish greatly as 1997 approached.
I showed Carrie several examples of ‘Street Cents’. She liked them and thought the pro-business message was very relevant for Hong Kong. Negotiations are now going on between TVB and the CBC’s International Sales department.
Before I left Hong Kong, I also spoke with David Dalton, a media reporter with the South China Post. I suggested that a profile of Benita Ha and her success in Canada could make an interesting feature for his readers. I was pleased to see that material and pictures from our Halifax office had been sent to the Post while I was in Australia and New Zealand.
After the incessant crowds and pollution of Hong Kong, it was a relief to arrive in Sydney, Australia.
Although Sydney is a large city (an urban sprawl of 700 square miles and more than 3 million people) and farther than I’d ever been from Canada, I felt at home almost immediately. The air is clean, the people are friendly and the Aussie dollar is almost exactly the same as ours (and, thankfully, there’s no GST or PST added to prices!). It’s clear the city has come a long way from its penal colony roots in the late 1700s.
Although my main goal was to learn about the excellent array of children’s and youth broadcasting Down Under, I made a point to see as much of this magnificent country as possible in a few weeks.
Even without the scenery, the unique wildlife makes the trip worthwhile. Australia has some 500 splendid national parks and wildlife preserves spread across the country so I was able to see and touch kangaroos, koalas, wombats and platypuses almost everywhere. The marine life on the 1200 mile long Great Barrier Reef is without parallel. It, along with the solitude and bareness of the Alice Springs area of central Australia, was the most memorable area I visited. In all I was able to get to Sydney, Brisbane, Cairns, Adelaide and Melbourne in addition to experiencing the amazing contrast between the northern tropics and rainforests of Queensland and the dry riverbeds and red sandstone caverns and chasms of the central desert region.
Sydney was without doubt the urban highlight. Living in Halifax, I appreciate a fine harbour vista, but nothing prepared me for the staggering beauty of the Harbour Bridge sitting next to the architectural splendour of the Sydney Opera House. This Circular Quay area is the main magnet for tourists and clever city planners have made the most of it with outstanding shopping, restaurants, museums and parks surrounding the area.
Sydneysiders love their beaches and it’s easy to see why. Within a short distance of Sydney centre, there are probably 20 magnificent choices of surf or harbour beaches and the locals enjoy them to the full (skin cancer rates are the highest in the world).
Within two hours of Sydney, one can visit one of the finest wine regions on earth (the Lower Hunter valley) or the stunning beauty of the Blue Mountains (named because of the blue haze that emanates from the bountiful eucalyptus trees) where early prisoners thought the almost impenetrable cliffs marked the border with China.
Before I left Canada, I made sure had established good contact with people at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I made several visits to their main operation in North Sydney and developed some excellent contacts for future input.
The first clay I was at ABC, I was invited to hear an address to staff from Director General David Hill. His important message was similar to one that CBC staff have been hearing – become better and more efficient because future competition and funding threats will be brutal.
Because of the geography of the country, Australia can control its media better than in North America. At present, there are five channels available – ABC (commercial-free, government funded) , the private and very commercial Channels 7, 9 and 10 and SBS (Special Broadcasting Service), which aims at minorities and has bath commercials between programmes and some government funding.
In his update and pep talk Mr. Hill said that government funding of about $270 million a year (for the TV end of ABC) was expected again for a three year renewal but it wasn’t assured yet (this budget has remained the same for many years). There could be layoffs. He said Australians have to adapt to the growing reality of satellite TV where a 2 metre dish could soon bring in up to 700 channels. We must be ready, he said, for this new competitive environment (10 new pay channels have already been approved) and make ABC distinctive and popular. He said ABC must continue to be aggressive in its sales of programmes (22 countries now take the comedy ‘Mother and Son’) and records and books (ABC makes about $100 million annually on these – Canada could learn something from the popular ABC shops).
ABC has already established an enviable reputation for quality children’s TV shows and I enjoyed the opportunity to meet and get to know a number of producers and programmers. I watched the taping of Banana Pajamas, a popular pre-school spin-off show with characters originally introduced in ‘Play School’, one of the longest running ABC shows. Actors dressed like bananas and teddy bears create five minute stories under the careful direction of an experienced drama producer. I was impressed with the care they took.
Over several days I saw almost all of the youth oriented shows produced by ABC now and in the recent past. In the appendix to this report, I focus on some ideas that I think could have relevance to Canada.
As in Hong Kong, I presented my own show,’ Street Cents’ and another Halifax produced series, Theodore Tugboat, to the production executives and purchasing agents responsible for acquisitions. There was a lot of interest in the material even though Street Cents is very Canadian. The suggestion was left that an Australian version of Street Cents could work with Canada providing scripts and research material. That possibility is also being examined at the moment.
I also spoke at length with Dina Browne, one of programmers at the private Seven Network. She explained that each private station in Australia must produce 260 hours a year of programming for 5-12 year olds. 130 of these hours must be Australian (although this can include Aussie versions of American shows like Blockbuster). She said there was very little for teens because in those years they’re watching adult shows and are very cynical about programmes aimed specifically at their age group.
Private stations have tried teen shows with mixed results. A variety series, Level 23, was rejected by teens but the soap opera ‘Home and Away’ was enjoyed. Dina told me her station was planning a computer show for teens and pre-teens called Amazing; she’ll send me a copy when complete.
The private channels Nine and Ten produce very little original kids’ TV and do it only as part of the required mandate. Most of it is commissioned and consists of a presenter with cartoons and music videos. Pretty trashy stuff! One exception on Channel Nine is Wonder World, a magazine programme about nature, science and teen trends.
I also visited the studio of SBS. This specialty service for minorities was set up by the Australian government 14 years ago. It caters to the reality of multiculturalism in Australia and produces 50% of its programming in languages other than English. Advertising is clone only between programmes and brings is about $7 million a year. The government funds the remaining $70 million a year.
The challenge of programmers at SES is to raise the profile of the network. Currently they only get about a 3% share of the audience; their goal is 6%.
Television, as a whole, in Australia is quite good but very American oriented. It was a bit startling to see both NBC and ABC (US) newscasts telecast across Australia live from the United states. The content also seems to be more liberal than we can get away with even in North America. For instance, the famous Seinfeld episode on masturbation was played at 8pm. At 10 pm Channel 9 played a bedroom farce film with lots of topless romping (perfectly ok, I guess, considering that topless beaches are common and legal everywhere).
Because Street Cents is a consumer show, I also visited the head office of the Consumers Association of Australia. It’s a very effective organization run somewhat like Consumers Union in the United states but with more clout. Eighty employees work in the office and the annual budget is between 6 and 7 million dollars. About 140,000 Australians subscribe to the Association magazine, “Choice” .
The people with whom I met were very impressed with ‘Street Cents’ and felt it was a vital education tool for young people. They said they’d try to lobby ABC to get it seen or adapted by Australia’s public broadcaster.
I expected TV New Zealand to be much like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation but I was mistaken. In fact the chief programmers at TVNZ (TV 1 and TV 2) in Auckland hardly think of themselves as public broadcasters at all.
A TV license fee supports TV 1 and 2 but both are commercial and profitable. Channel 2 is wholly commercial and run much like the private networks in Australia. TV 2 is more committed to culture rand local programmes. TVNZ is undergoing the restructuring and downsizing of many broadcasters around the world; employees now number just 762 compared to over 1000 seven years ago.
There’s a third network that telecasts across New Zealand. It has a Canadian connection; after years of losses 40% of TV3 (and management control) was bought by CanWest. A former Irving executive, Ken Clark, was brought in to run it and, ‘unfortunately, it began to look like an Irving station with the lowest common denominator of us programming the norm. However, it did begin to attract a better audience and now gets about a 20% share.
TVNZ does do some interesting programming although the potential audience is fairly small – a human population of less than 5 million (although the 60 million sheep don’t seem to count in the ratings!). There’s an indigenous New Zealand soap opera telecast nightly along with some innovative shows like ‘Wild South’ (one of he few export shows), ‘Son of a Gunn’ (a youth show build around the personality of Jason Gunn), ‘What Now?’ (a 3 hour live Saturday morning show) and ‘Fair Go’, (to be described later in the appendix).
Visiting Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand was a rare opportunity to explore those beautiful and exciting areas and get a thorough understanding of the television industries (particularly youth television) in those countries. The programmers and executives with whom l met had rarely exchanged ideas with a Canadian so l was pleased to represent my country and my company.
There’s growing interest in Canadian television products as our international quality becomes better known (DeGrassi Junior High is a big hit Down Under). I was glad to play a small part in the marketing of those programmes and trust that others will explore the markets on the Pacific rim even more diligently.
I’m grateful to the Michener Foundation for giving me the opportunity to spend some useful time in an exciting and vibrant part of the world. Combined with my earlier visit to Malaysia and Singapore on behalf of the Asia Pacific Foundation, I feel I now have a good understanding of the people and potential of one of Canada’s most important markets.
Michener Foundation Report. Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.
*Programmes and ideas that could be adapted for Canada.
1. Fair Go. A Kiwi expression for “Getting a fair deal”, it’s the title of a long standing TVNZ series that acts as an ombudsman for viewers. Two lively hosts investigate consumer complaints from adults with good journalism and with a lot of humour and interesting visuals.
Because of the success of “What’ s Your Beef” on street Cents (focusing on young people almost exclusively) and the ongoing popularity of Marketplace (which tends to be very humourless and matter-of-fact), I’d like to develop a series that has broad appeal as a consumer advocate. It will deal with both young people and adults in a fun, interesting and highly informative format.
Our show could be called What’s Your Beef? – a natural spin-off – and would solicit consumer complaints and comments from across Canada (no age limit!). Each half hour would have perhaps six to ten different segments in which the viewer presents the problem on camera (or it may be read by the hosts for confidentiality) and a solution sought. If the complaint is about a company, the top person in that company would be asked for comment -via phone or on camera- in an attempt to get satisfaction for the viewer. If the problem is more complex, an item would be produced in the style of ‘Street Cents’ and the hosts would have the fun of editorializing or presenting the solution. If Street Cents is no longer with us, there’s probably room for a “Fit for the Pit” feature each week.
Problems on the show could range from a spot remover that doesn’t do what it says on TV (with some natural product solutions suggested) to people’s problems with automobiles or home repairs.
The key to the show – and this is what makes the New Zealand programme a national institution – is the personality of the two hosts. They’re witty and fun to watch but ruthless in their pursuit of the truth. They really do want to give the viewer a Fair Go. If done in the proper style with good journalistic guidelines and legal advice, this could be a big bit in Canada. Our experience with street Cents makes Halifax the perfect place to produce the series.
It would be done with commercials (as in NZ) but advertisers have no influence on topics chosen.
2. Ever since Reach for the Top was killed, there hasn’t been an intelligent, useful and entertaining kids’ quiz show in Canada. (Some shows, like Wild Guess, have been Wild Bores). l saw some interesting and innovative quiz shows Down Under; l think the idea could work in Canada. Some, though clever, were Aussie or Kiwi versions of American Mark Goodson shows (e.g., Now You See It, based on word search games in magazines and Blockbuster, in which kids eliminate blocks of questions on a computer board to find a path to the big prize).
More original, and thoroughly entertaining, was ‘Vidiot’, an ABC show in which four young teens (obviously well chosen for their personalities) were challenged by a variety of multiple choice, hidden puzzle, who am I? and video screen questions. All the material dealt with some aspect of music.
l liked much of this show. The energy was constantly high, thanks to a young hip host clearly in tune with the contestants. There was a lively studio audience but the play-along factor for home viewers was very evident. Even the beeper for contestants to declare they knew the answers was fun. Each player had a distinctive sound (moo, blender, car horn, fanfare etc.) that changed with each weeks’ show.
I’d like to develop a quiz show with the energy and visual appeal of Yidiot but without needing to stick to music knowledge. There’d be broad categories, all of them of interest to young people. I’d like to add a bit of an element from one of my favourite board games – “Can’t stop”.
Each of the three or four contestants would have to move his or her playing piece (electronic, of course) to the top of a column consisting of perhaps 20 questions. A winning answer gives the player a chance to climb another step up the ladder. BUT a wrong answer means a player loses aIl accumulated points on that turn. Contestants have to know, therefore, when to quit and when to gamble. The first player to reach the top wins the round.
The look of any kids quiz show is very important. This one would need computer graphics throughout (Paint Box is an integral part of the ABC show).
3. TV New Zealand plays the old British improv show ‘Whose Line is it Anway?’ It depends totally on the improvisational skills of the four panelists; they’re given skits, improbable party situations, various personalities and video clips to ad lib around. Even the winner gets to narrate the credits like a celebrity (in the case l saw, it was Mae West).
When I see the improv skills of Roger Fredericks, Louise Moon, Jamie Bradley and many others across Canada, l see the making of very funny TV show. The gags and situations have to be particularly well chosen and the host has to be a perfect foil for the unharnessed gag artists. There have been some feeble attempts to try something like this but l think Canada has sufficiently matured as a country to make our improv humour particularly funny.
May 11, 1994