Time embedded ads row is put to rest

Editorial | Mary Ma Apr 6, 2018
The Communications Authority's proposal to lift the ban on indirect television advertising is long overdue.

That it hadn't acted earlier exemplifies how regulatory policies can lag behind swift changes taking place in the broadcast industry constantly being reshaped by technological advances.

The authority is giving the public one month - rather than the usual three months - to submit their views.

Is that consultation period sufficient?

It depends on whom the question is put to. For those opposing the idea, like some of those people responding to a previous survey on the issue, one month can be too short. But for the remainder, which formed the majority finding it acceptable to embed ads in TV programs, a month would be more than enough.

At any rate, whether it's one or three months, what really matters is the community gets a fair chance to make its views known, upon which policies are to be formed.

Public consultations represent a fine tradition worthy of reservation, and should never be given up for the sake of administrative expediency. The authority, headed by Winnie Tam Wan-chi, is trying to strike a balance in view of the opinion survey findings released in September.

If the findings remain valid, the outcome of the latest consultation, which concludes on April 28, will likely be decisively in favor of lifting the current blanket ban on embedded ads. The previous survey showed only 14 percent of respondents said the ban should stay.

As I've often pointed out, the operating environment for the TV industry has undergone a paradigm shift following the new media revolution.

Eighty-five percent of the population watched free-to-air TV every day in 2008. Last year, the ratio dropped to 72 percent. For those still watching, they're spending fewer hours in front of the TV screens - from a daily average of 3.2 hours in 2009, down to 2.3 hours last year.

It's only fair to modernize the regulations when they cease to be suitable.

The authority says the proposal to lift the indirect advertising ban doesn't apply to news, current affairs, or children's, educational or religious programs. However, product placements may be allowed in current affairs as well as acquired programs like South Korean soap dramas. The scope is appropriate.

But the authority insists the ads must be presented in a "natural and unobtrusive" manner.

So what's natural and unobtrusive? It's a rather hollow concept that can be open to different interpretations.

Would incidents like artistes chowing down on buckets of fried chicken during a glamorous show - as happened live on TVB in 2015 - continue to be viewed as unnatural and obtrusive? The broadcaster, chaired by Charles Chan Kwok-keung, was fined HK$150,000 over that "finger licking good" episode,

The authority says it has drawn up plenty of examples to illustrate what may be unnatural and obtrusive. But every creative industry worker can readily say it's impossible to define the limits of creativity in black and white.

There has to be sufficient communication between the authority and TV operators, to ensure the regulator and regulated have a common understanding of the codes.

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