Rights to broadcast the Olympics have been purchased by the Hong Kong government for the first time after commercial operators balked at screening the troubled upcoming event.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the rights for the 2020 Tokyo games – which were postponed due to the coronavirus crisis – would be licensed to five local television stations but not public broadcaster, RTHK.

File photo: Viola Kam/United Social Press.

Lam announced the purchase on Tuesday, saying that her administration has stepped in to buy the rights to broadcast the games after local commercial broadcasters signalled they would not be buying.

Describing the move as “unprecedented,” Lam said it will allow Hongkongers to watch the international sporting event for free and support athletes from the city and China.

“This is a unique, one-off measure… [the move] to buy the broadcasting rights by the government will definitely bring huge benefits to the promotion of sports in Hong Kong,” she said.

The purchase – formally agreed last Friday – was paid for with public funding from the Arts and Sport Development Fund, Lam said, but the exact cost could not be disclosed at present as the government is bound by a confidentiality agreement.

“The cost is reasonable, I can even say the fee was lower than what commercial broadcasters paid for in the past two Olympic Games,” she said, adding the sports fund is still HK$2.6 billion in the black.

Carrie Lam. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

According to local media, the fee for broadcasting the 2016 Rio Olympic Games was around HK$160 million, while the 2012 London Olympics cost around HK$120 million.

The rights will be licensed to five local broadcasting service providers, TVB, ViuTV, Fantastic Television, Cable TV and NowTV. The chief executive said these stations must stream all events featuring Hong Kong athletes, and make programmes to promote the Games.

Asked why the government-funded station RTHK was not licensed, Lam said it was “an issue of capacity,” saying the public broadcaster did not have enough resources to produce programmes for the Olympics.

“If RTHK has to produce the Tokyo Olympic Games, they need a lot of investment and equipment,” said Lam. “It is not because I have negative views on RTHK or don’t want it to take part in sports development,” she added.

Sports Federation and Olympic Committee of Hong Kong, China. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been postponed for a year due to the global spread of Covid-19. The postponed Games are due to open on July 23. Lam said if the event is cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Hong Kong government will get a full refund of the fee paid.

‘Very excited’

Kenneth Fok, vice-president of the Sports Federation and Olympic Committee, said he was “very happy” to learn the Olympics broadcasting arrangement was confirmed. He said citizens can show support for Hong Kong’s representatives, who have secured over 30 tickets to the Games, as well as athletes from China.

“I hope in the coming time, the government will continue to discuss with television broadcasters to make Olympics-related productions, and ensure we can see [the performance] of each Hong Kong athlete,” Fok wrote on Facebook.

Hong Kong fencing representative Coco Lin, who qualified for the Tokyo Olympics women’s epee event in March, told HKFP that she was “very excited” for Hong Kong citizens to be able to watch the Games free of charge.

“This year, due to Covid-19, nobody can travel to Japan to watch the Games, so I think it is a very good chance to bring people’s spirit together in these difficult times,” she said.

Asked about using taxpayers’ money to buy the broadcasting rights, Lin said there may be “some noise” around the government’s decision. But she said Hong Kong people should “make good use” of the funding spent and watch the upcoming competition more often.

“I think people should be excited about it. Let’s watch the more of the Games and support Hong Kong athletes,” she said.

The fencer added her preparation for the Olympics have been “going on well,” but her overseas training plans were halted due to the pandemic. She admitted she was worried that the event may be called off in the end: “We can just treat it as it will happen anyway and do the [preparation] work now.”

Gov’t u-turn

Meanwhile, shareholder activist David Webb said on Tuesday that the government’s move to buy the Olympics broadcasting rights was another demonstration of its increasing intervention in the economy.

David Webb. Photo: David Webb.

He also said sub-licencing the rights free of charge to five local stations would “remove competition and exclusivity”.

“The stations will of course be free to sell advertising during the government-financed TV coverage, earning profits at the taxpayers’ expense,” he said.

But some stations “may just not bother” to cover much of the Games, Webb predicted, as they had to incur their own production costs, including putting together a team of commentators for the events.

He also cited a comment made by Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau in the legislature in 2018, when the minister said the government would not interfere with the process of awarding of broadcasting rights of major sports events under market mechanism.

“[A] mechanism is already in place to ensure that the public may view some of the matches of the (football) World Cup and the Olympic Games free of charge. In general, governments around the world will not intervene in the process and Hong Kong is no exception,” Yau said at the time.

Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.