HKTV, the company controlled by telecom mogul Ricky Wong, on Wednesday (April 1) denied reports that it had reached an agreement to buy a majority stake in Asia Television (ATV), Hong Kong’s nearly bankrupt second free-to-air TV broadcaster.
On its main news bulletin on Tuesday (March 31) evening, ATV announced that the two mainland Chinese businessmen, Wong Ching and Wong Ben-koon, who own 52% of the broadcaster had agreed to sell their shares to HKTV.
In a statement issued to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, Ricky Wong said that he had met with the ATV owners last week, but that no agreement had been reached.
In February the High Court ordered the sale of a 10.75% stake in ATV, but outside bidders were hesitant, without the sale of a further 40% stake from Wong Ching.
Charles Mok, a legislator representing the Information Technology functional constituency, said that it appeared that ATV had made the apparently false announcement about a sale to HKTV in an effort to persuade the government to renew its operating licence.
Other legislators have since called on the finance industry regulators to look into the ATV announcement on the grounds that the company may have misled investors by releasing false information.
The Executive Council, roughly equivalent to a cabinet of ministers, is scheduled to hold a special meeting today to discuss the matter.
“Ricky Wong … confirmed that he did meet with Mr. Wong Ching once on 26 March 2015 to exchange and discuss preliminary ideas on how assistance may be provided to assist in the operations of ATV and the renewal of its domestic free television program service license. No agreement or agreement in principle has been reached by Mr. Ricky Wong, whether or not on behalf of the Company with anyone with regard to the possible transaction. In particular, the Company has not entered into any discussions with the Joint and Several Managers of ATV appointed by the High Court of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region,” HKTV said in the filing.
ATV has endured a highly public meltdown over the past several months, following a dispute between shareholders and a succession of financial losses. In recent months staff were not paid, which prompted newsroom staff to threaten to quit. If the company were unable to comply with its obligations on news reporting, that would in turn mean that ATV would be in breach of the terms of its operating license and could be closed down by government.
In addition to staff wages, the company needed to raise cash to pay its license fee and a penalty imposed by the government, amounting to a combined US$1.32 million (HK$10.2 million), that was payable in two installments, in February and March.
Ricky Wong, who made a fortune with City Telecom, has for several years harbored ambitions to become a major broadcaster. He was very briefly chief executive of ATV in 2008, but exited after 12 days, having being caught in a dispute with then-chairman Linus Cheung over restructuring plans. And in 2013 Wong was rebuffed in a bid to get a free to air license for his specially formed HKTV company.