Hong Kong’s biggest broadcaster TVB has received a flood of complaints against its new variety show for lampooning the city’s leader and other prominent public figures.
Critics put off by the show said the troubled station should resist relying on “low comedy” in trying to win back lost viewers and advertisers.
The Communications Authority received about 250 complaints after the debut episode of Have a Big Laugh aired on April 11. Most found the show “tasteless” and insulting.
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It was one of TVB’s key initiatives since it appointed comedian Eric Tsang Chi-wai, 67, as deputy general manager in January to salvage its flagging performance.
Another comedian, Wong Cho-lam, 41, joined as chief creative officer to help Tsang develop variety and “infotainment” content.
He was featured in the offending segment of the new show, playing Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor at a Covid-19 press conference.
Wearing rimless glasses and a wig, Wong impersonated Lam’s facial expressions as he stood at a podium with a placard saying “Cheap Creative Officer”. He was introduced as “Mrs Nam”.
The last line on the placard said “Chief Executive of TVB Special Rubbish Dump Region,” mocking Hong Kong’s official name as a Special Administrative Region.
Appearing alongside him were actors playing University of Hong Kong microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung and Dr Chuang Shuk-kwan, head of the communicable disease branch of the Centre for Health Protection, who often leads the city’s Covid-19 press conferences.
During a question and answer session in the show, actors playing journalists asked how the officials intended to cope with the pandemic and Wong, as Lam, insisted that they would not close the borders.
Wong’s efforts to mimic the city leader included exaggerating her signature frown, the way she rolls her eyes, stares over her glasses and pauses while speaking in the Legislative Council to take a sip of water.
At the end of their segment, which lasted about 10 minutes, Wong and the two other actors sang together and thanked health officials Yuen and Chuang as well as the city’s medical staff for their efforts in handling the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Chief Executive’s Office did not respond to the Post’s inquiries.
A TVB spokeswoman said the new show was not meant to insult anyone but aimed instead “to use a lighthearted way to tap into hot societal topics and bring joy to the audience”.
As for the part of the show which sparked an outcry, she said: “Through the relevant segment we hoped to pay tribute to all health care workers. We had no intention to express anything derogatory.”
TVB has been grappling with plummeting revenues and viewership in recent years, a situation made worse by the social unrest of 2019 and the pandemic.
In the midst of the anti-government protests, there were calls to boycott TVB advertisers after the broadcaster was accused of being pro-establishment and running biased news reports.
Advertising income plunged by 54 per cent to HK$881 million (US$113.3 million) last year, with a net loss of HK$281 million, compared with net losses of HK$295 million in 2019, and HK$199 million in 2018.
Chinese media mogul Li Ruigang, who owns controlling interests in TVB through his Shanghai-based media conglomerate CMC Inc, told the Post earlier this month that he was dissatisfied with TVB’s performance and a “radical reform” was badly needed.
‘Cheap jokes, low comedy don’t work’
Commenting on the controversy over Have a Big Laugh, Grace Leung Lai-kuen, a lecturer at Chinese University’s school of journalism and communication, said it no longer worked to use the same old tactics of cheap jokes and low comedy to draw viewers.
“I can’t deny that this show created some noise and attracted a number of eyeballs no matter whether you liked it,” she said. “But this kind of satirical show featuring cheap jokes has been rehashed since the 1980s. These old tactics don’t work any more especially for the younger generation.”
Leung said the wider choice available from online media channels such as Netflix and YouTube meant Hongkongers had high expectations for television programmes and TVB should reinvent itself to deliver creative, quality programmes.
“Nowadays, I doubt whether a 10-year-old kid will be attracted to this type of farcical show,” she said.
She noted that even TVB’s rival ViuTV, launched in 2016, had been building up its audience with popular productions such as the variety show King Maker.
Veteran marketing consultant Vincent Tsui said the recent changes at TVB might have yet to wow advertisers as the new show was similar to its old staples of having actors impersonating women and other figures.
From his observations of social media, he said, young people “do not really buy” a programme in which someone like Wong plays the city leader for laughs.
He said some of his clients were still concerned about the calls to boycott TVB, but added that the station was still an effective choice for companies targeting older people including housewives.
Among young people who do not watch TVB any more, dancer and actor Godric Leung Man-yin, 26, said that when he wanted to break into the entertainment industry, he entered ViuTV’s talent competition show in 2019.
Although he did not win, it led him to various dancing gigs and he built up a fan base on social media, with 8,000 followers on Instagram.
Television audiences were no longer the most important thing for his career development, he said, pointing out that some fresh talent from ViuTV have more social media followers than TVB’s budding artists.
“It’s the buzz you create that matters,” he said, adding that young stars want recognition on social media and online forums as well.