Hong Kong’s leading free-to-air TV network Television Broadcasts (TVB), which has ties to the "Rupert Murdoch of China," will be dropping coverage of the Oscars ceremony for the first time since 1969.
The station confirmed Monday that it would not renew the rights to the ceremony usually carried by Pearl, TVB’s English language channel. No other Hong Kong outlets announced plans to acquire rights to broadcast this year’s ceremony and as of Saturday, Pearl is still listed as one of the networks that will air this year’s ceremony on the official website.
The Hollywood Reporter, citing sources familiar with the matter, reported in early March that Beijing’s media watchdog had instructed Chinese press outlets to skip live coverage of the 93rd Oscars ceremony and to downplay reporting of the event.
In a statement to Hong Kong media outlets, a TVB spokesperson said, “It was purely a commercial decision that we decided not to pursue the Oscars this year."
Yet China’s state media Global Times offered a different reason. In an article published Tuesday, the outlet quoted film experts in China, saying that the decision was not likely a commercial one.
"The true reason is the Academy’s nomination of Do Not Split, a short documentary that recorded the protests and violence in Hong Kong in 2019, as well as the nominations given to controversial Chinese director Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland," Global Times said. Zhao has been the subject of an online backlash in China after comments critical of Beijing from 2013 surfaced.
In 2016, Chinese media tycoon Li Ruigang, known as the "Rupert Murdoch of China," bought 26% of the voting shares in TVB, becoming the largest shareholder of the network. In February 2020, he joined the executive committee of TVB’s board of directors.
Beijing’s media watchdogs are now downplaying two films that have Oscar potential and Chinese-audience appeal in a year when the Oscars ceremony, delayed until April 25 because of the coronavirus pandemic, will be broadcast live from multiple sites, including Hollywood, according to the Academy of Cinema Arts and Sciences, which presents the prestigious golden statuettes.
The documentary Do Not Split is a street-level record of the 2019-20 Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. The film, nominated for Best Documentary Short Subject, reminds both peaceful protesters and more radical groups that they are fighting for the same cause, which was greater democratic representation for residents as envisioned by the Basic Law under the "One Country, Two Systems" framework.
According to the British movie review site, Eye for Film, the short documentary "offers a solid starting point for those unfamiliar with the current landscape in Hong Kong and, thanks to its Oscar nomination, is likely to raise awareness and, hopefully, international political pressure over the situation." The 20-minute film is directed by Norwegian documentarian Anders Hammer who has directed works on Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Sundance Film Festival where it screened.
China’s Global Times contends the film is notable for more biased political views than artistry.
"The Oscars should not be reduced to political tools; otherwise, it will hurt Chinese audiences' feelings and may lead to a heavy loss in the Chinese film market, which exceeded North America to be the largest box office market in the world for the first time last year," the article said.
Zhao, the first Asian woman to win the Golden Globe for directing, came under attack in China when she won the award. Her film is nominated for six Oscars including four naming Zhao: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing. The two other nominations are to Frances McDormand for Best Actress and Joshua James Richards for Best Cinematography. It offers a sometimes dark view of America’s form of capitalism, according to BuzzFeed, shaped by individual resilience.
Initially, China’s official media called Zhao “the pride of China.” Yet that enthusiasm ebbed when netizens found an interview in which she described the country as a place “where there are lies everywhere.” Zhao, a Chinese citizen, has lived in the U.S. for more than two decades after arriving to attend high school.
Nomadland was quietly swept from Chinese social media. The film’s promotional posters vanished from Douban, a major movie site, and Chinese social media platform Weibo. Originally cleared to open on April 23, now there is no release date in China for the film.
Before Zhao’s Golden Globe Award, she was best known in China for being the stepdaughter of Song Dandan, a TV star and household name. Her father, Yuji Zhao, is the former head of a Chinese state-owned steel company.
Tsoi Wing-mui, a former editor at the Hong Kong based liberal political magazine Open Magazine, told VOA that Zhao is the victim of the rising nationalism in China today.
"Her sudden popularity made people curious about her history, and it turns out ‘she didn’t have the correct attitude towards China,'" Tsoi said.
The editor added that if Zhao’s comments hadn’t been widely circulated online, the authorities might have opted to overlook them. "Yet now that it has become a hot topic online, they have to make an example of her."