|— A Broadcaster's View
In 1949, George Orwell stunned the literary world with his prophetic novel 1984. The central theme was on human nature, but the instrument to physically maintain the empire of evil was technology. George Orwell made the bold prediction that technology would be a centralizing, totalitarian influence. Without denigrating the achievements of this great literary work, we need to say now that George Orwell's fears have proved to be one of the worst predictions in the century.
Technology As Driving Force
A lot has been said about how the arrival of the printing press changed the western world. At that time, there were only about 30,000 books on the entire continent of Europe. Fifty years after the launch of the printing press, there were more than 9 million. It represented a revolution in communications and ensured a quickened and wider spread of information and knowledge.
The widespread use of the microchip probably has a similar effect in changing the landscape of modern day living. Intel, which makes about 90% of the planet's PC microprocessors, was founded in the sixties when Andrew Grove, a Hungarian refugee who managed to escape Nazi persecution in his youth, foresaw the power of the microchip. One of the earliest chips made by Andrew Grove and his colleagues was the Intel 8080 which was launched in 1974. In his book The Road Ahead, Bill Gates, then a Harvard student, recounted how the Intel chip impacted on him and his long-time friend Paul Allen. Bill Gates never finished Harvard. He and his friend started a two-man operation, and Microsoft is now a company with 17,000 employees and a dominant power in producing computer software.
These people were pioneers to create a new environment, heralding the arrival of the age of information technology. The broad range of technologies being developed are changing how we work, learn and use leisure time. The new systems are fascinating hybrids which mix together technological developments in television, telephone transmission, computer science and satellites. They have bucked the inflationary trend and will probably continue to do so. The famous "Moore's Law" applies: CHIP POWER DOUBLES AND COSTS FALL BY HALF ROUGHLY EVERY 18 MONTHS.
While the cost of roast beef has risen and will continue to rise, the cost of computers and softwares has declined as they became popular and mass-produced.
It is the last point that I am particularly interested in. The new communication systems do not require audiences in the millions to make them economically viable or socially appealing. They find their audiences through narrowcasting, and they service special-interest groups. So is there still such a thing called the "mass media"? Given that the new technologies are giving people more choices and more information, does this not signal the demise of the traditional "mass media"? Where, and how, do the media find the "mass"?
One way to describe the change that will ultimately be brought about by the new technologies is offered by digital guru Nicholas Negroponte:
"Instead of delivering a thousand television programmes to everybody, it may be better to deliver one programme to each person in one-thousandth of the real time. This will totally change how we think of broadcast media. The broadcast of most bits will have absolutely nothing to do with the rate at which we consume them as humans".
The way Negroponte sees "bitcasting" leads him to declare - "The medium is no longer the message".
How is this reflected in the real world? The United States has been at the forefront of digital developments, and is a very big market. The once dominant powers of the television networks have been challenged by the rapid ascension of cable/satellite television and computer-based video/entertainment systems. The combined ratings of the major networks have fallen below the magical mark of 50%. However, despite the perennial decline in market share, the television networks are still the most influential media on the national agenda, and they continue to do good business. I think we may be arriving at more or less the same scenario in Hong Kong.
Changes in Hong Kong
It should not surprise you that optimism permeates through my presentation. As a media practitioner, and having been association with the public broadcaster of Hong Kong for many years, I am presenting to you the positive aspects of our operating environment, as we continue to see a bright future for the broadcasting industry in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, we are mindful of the changes, in particular the technological innovations, that are affecting our media.
Role of RTHK
That brings me to my favourite paragraph in my recent presentations - that of the role of Radio Television Hong Kong and how we are coping. We are keeping abreast of the newest developments in the technological side. We were the first local broadcaster to launch onto the Internet, a pioneer in the Asia-Pacific region. When we first started in late 1994, we had a daily hit rate of about 7,000. Now we are providing television on-demand, and radio both real-time and on-demand. The number of our daily hits exceeds half a million. We have also been working closely with our government and industry colleagues on trials for digital audio broadcasting. Experimental broadcasts will be tested in a couple of months' time. On the television production side, we are moving steadily to digital and computer-based formats. Both our television and radio programmes achieve high appreciation ratings and have won many prestigious international and local prizes. As a public broadcaster, we continue to pledge quality and distinctiveness in our productions, meanwhile fulfilling the traditionally recognizd role to inform, educate and entertain.
WHATEVER CAN BE DONE WILL BE DONE
■CHU Pui Hing