Hong Kong’s i-Cable TV faces an uncertain future after its parent company announced that talks with potential investors to sell the network have fallen through.

The Wharf (Holdings) Limited said in a Hong Kong Stock Exchange announcement on Thursday afternoon that it will cease funding i-CABLE Communications Limited upon the expiry of its commitments. i-Cable’s pay-television license expires on May 31.

Photo: Cable TV screenshot.

Founded in 1993, i-Cable operates a 24-hour Cantonese-language news network in Hong Kong, with an investigative news team in mainland China.

The network also offers sports, entertainment and other channels, and has almost one million paid viewers in Hong Kong.

Wharf Holdings announced on Thursday that i-Cable made a loss of HK$313 million in 2016.

“No agreement in respect of the disposal of interests in i-CABLE has been entered into by Wharf,” said the parent company. “Wharf has terminated all discussions in relation to any disposal of interests in i-CABLE.”

Trading in i-Cable’s shares was halted from Thursday to Friday morning. When trading resumed on Friday the shares dropped 40 per cent.

Uncertain future for staff

Wharf Holdings arrived at the decision to exit its communications, media and entertainment segment after a review conducted jointly with investment bank Goldman Sachs last year.

Cable TV Tower in Tsuen Wan. Photo: Wpcpey via Wikicommons.

Last month, pro-Beijing paper Sing Tao Daily reported rumours that the network would be bought by an investor with a mainland Chinese background.

Asked about the futures of over 2,000 i-Cable staff on Thursday, Wharf Holdings Chairman Stephen Ng replied: “everyone should stick to their posts.”

i-Cable has been offered a 12-year extension of its pay-television license by the Executive Council, to come into effect following the expiry of its current license on May 31. However, it is unclear at present whether the network will accept the license.

Also unclear is whether i-Cable will launch Fantastic Television, a network currently under preparation which obtained a free-to-view television license in 2013.

Declining influence of traditional media

Grace Leung, a journalism lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told RTHK that the influence of traditional media, such as i-Cable, has declined in comparison with online media.

“After the handover, many people purchased media networks not as a way of making money, but as a form of political insurance,” said Leung. However, she said that in recent years, the strategies of business owners have changed, and they no longer view media ownership as necessary.

Cable TV interview. Photo: Cable TV screenshot.

Shue Yan University journalism lecturer Leung Tin-wai told AM730 he believed that Cable TV would not shut down completely, but operate on a smaller scale.

“Shutting down is very embarrassing,” he said. “If it had to shut down, it would have shut down much earlier.”

Elson Tong

Elson Tong is a graduate of international relations and former investigations consultant. He has also written for Stand News.