South China Morning Post
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Philip Yeung says TVB’s excruciating bid to ‘carnivalise’ its broadcasts reflects how, in money-mad Hong Kong, sport is only an afterthought
As an Olympic Games couch potato, I am bitterly disappointed, once again, with Hong Kong’s Cantonese TV coverage. In a word, it is an annoyance. While we talk grandiosely about being part of the Olympic movement, the truth is that when it comes to sports, this city has a long way to go, journalistically at least, if not athletically.
Every four years, we are treated to another 16-days’ worth of nauseating amateurism in Games coverage, filled with non-stop chatter from people who know little about the events, and care even less to do their homework on the athletes, rules, significant statistics or the history of the Games.
Instead, they choose to “carnivalise” the coverage, giving viewers prizes for daily Olympic quiz questions, aided and abetted by an outsized panel of eight talking heads, each vying for air time.
Let’s face it, there is no Olympic fever in this city, however hard they pretend otherwise. I squirm at the jibber-jabber night after night. I know I am not alone in frequently muting the babbling commentators, preferring often just to watch the pictures without the sound. That’s how painful it gets.
For all the money it has poured into winning exclusive broadcasting rights for the Games, TVB has never gone beyond giving us “pretty faces in loud outfits”. I apologise for this uncharitable characterisation, but TVB, as the sole distributor for these broadcasts, has much to apologise for as well.
Sport, to all intents and purposes, is now a religion in the West. It is also big business, with a huge impact on people’s lives. Sports writing and commentary, as a consequence, has become a separate and highly specialised genre in journalism, producing its own galaxies of stars.
By contrast, in money-mad Hong Kong, sport is only an afterthought. Just look at the government’s simmering feud with our lifeguards whose strike closed public pools and beaches. The sports commentator’s lot is a sorry one. Anyone is qualified as long as they have a well-exercised tongue and no Frankenstein features. Our sports coverage is a joke, never taking serious sports fans seriously.
In mega global events, including world soccer championships, grand slam golf or tennis tournaments, the Hong Kong TV viewer’s experience is no less painful, if you happen to be unilingual Chinese. The difference between Chinese and English commentaries is like night and day. Thank God for Fox Sports and ESPN. The calibre of English commentators is exceptional, and the language vivid and dramatic.
Quite apart from the thrill of competition, the commentators milk their words for their economy, humour and rich imagery. They personify knowledge and discipline. It is a treat that I look forward to, almost as much as the event itself.
Hong Kong deserves better. As a long-suffering sports fan who has seen the good, the bad and the ugly in sports commentary, I have this advice for our journalism schools: offer specialised training in sports writing as a subdiscipline. It will give students much greater scope for writing with flair, unlike political commentary which has descended into demagoguery. Creative, firecracker sports writing and commentary is pure entertainment.
The other half of the equation is that our media outlets should raise the bar when hiring sports writers or commentators, and pay them accordingly.
Promoting Hong Kong’s image is not just a matter of throwing money at tourism ads. Every world city has embraced sports in all its glory, including quality broadcasts. Sport is now the universal language of a competitive world. The hospitality industry will tell you how important sports broadcasts are to their hotel guests. Sport transcends nationality and geography.
Lacking a sports culture, we must stop embarrassing ourselves further with subpar broadcasts. Having a gaggle of babbling talking heads who know less about the event covered than the viewers themselves marks this city as the backwater of international sports, not a proud member of the Olympic movement.
Philip Yeung is a former speech-writer to the president of The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.