MTV’s dream of a global satellite-delivered music channel is looking shaky. The U.S. vidclip machine has been outmaneuvered by the feisty Hong-Kong-based Television Broadcasts in locking up access to premium Cantonese music vids.

The two are competing to attract a potential audience of 50 million viewers in China and adjacent territories.

Cantonese is the native language of many of Hong Kong’s 6 million citizens, of an estimated 40 million people in southern China and a few million others scattered throughout the region.

MTV Asia, which is beamed as part of the Star TV regional satellite network, had hoped to begin broadcasting Cantonese music in late November when a language prohibition clause in Star’s uplink license expired.

With no music product in Cantonese available, the service was forced to restrict its Cantonese debut to video links and newscasts.

TVB strategy

TVB has a stranglehold on the Cantonese entertainment market, with all the top-selling artists treated like products of the old-style Hollywood studio system.

Almost all were signed as young unknowns and built up into superstars by the TVB empire. That empire includes the leading artist management company, the dominant Hong Kong terrestrial TV station, the major record label, prolific Cantonese TV program production and a satellite TV network serving major Asian markets such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Philippines.

TVB Intl. head S.K. Fung denied talk that his company had forbidden record companies and artists from submitting product to MTV Asia but indirectly admitted that TVB might have contributed to Star’s troubles.

“In commercial competition, we always try and protect ourselves and the best way to prepare a defense is to go on the offense,” Fung said.

MTV response

Over at MTV, channel manager Don Atyeo played down the discomfort caused by TVB’s domination of the Cantonese markets in the region.

“Obviously, there is a problem because the status quo has been there for a long time and it will take time to shift, but really, we’re not in competition with TVB. We’re a youth channel, very broad-based with pan-Asian appeal.”

Anders Nelsson, local music impresario and former head of Bertelsmann Music Group records division in Hong Kong, said the entry of MTV Asia into the fray may mean a broadening of popular Cantonese music to include more creativity and innovation.

“A lot of smaller companies never get anything on TVB; they’re the ones who’ll side with Star and MTV,” he said.

“I can also see some of the larger ones having divisions, maybe setting up an indy label to promote indy starts — and there’s a huge stable of them that has only ever had minimum exposure on TVB.”

Convenient alliances

Nelsson also predicts Star-MTV Asia may have to enter some strategic alliances –“maybe with Star and TVB’s terrestrial opposition, Asia Television,” or with a major daily newspaper — to come up with a viable alternative to the TVB monolith.

“If I were a Cantonese popstar on the verge of making it, I would have no choice, I’d have to go with TVB,” Nelsson said.

Within the last 18 months, Nelsson was part of a group negotiation with Star’s intellectual properties division, Media Assets, trying to provide product for the day the Cantonese ban was lifted.

Home growing talent

But TVB has apparently moved much faster, reinforcing its strength in the Cantonese talent field.

TVB established a joint venture training unit to recruit and train people in China to be signed for long-term, comparatively lucrative contracts in the showbiz industry.

Fung said the scheme has been working so well, TVB extended it to improve the quality of scriptwriters and technicians.

“Ultimately, programming counts and we’ve got the world’s biggest capacity for Chinese product,” Fung said.

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