Hong Kong switched on to cable TV for the first time Monday with Wharf Cable airing eight channels of its own and none of the Star TV channels required under a “must-carry” clause in its government-granted license.

At 3:45 p.m. Sunday, colony Gov. Chris Patten pressed the button that launched the $ HK5 billion ($ 650 million) service, including 24-hour Chinese News, CNN Intl., Cable Entertainment, Cable Movie, Cable Sports, Cable Children’s, Cable Young Music and Cable Preview channels. Balloons burst and confetti sprinkled over Wharf Cable execs and their 1,300 guests.

Patten exhibited no concern at officiating over a ceremony where the host was defying a major term of its licensing conditions. “Today is a happy day because it heralds a new era for television in Hong Kong where a wide range of choices are offered,” Wharf Cable chairman Peter Woo said.

When it is completed, Wharf Cable will be the largest cable service in the world, serving 1.3 million homes in Hong Kong. But Wharf declined to include three of Star TV’s five free channels as required under its government-issued license and also declined the four pay channels Star rushed to prepare in the belief Wharf would honor its undertaking for Star to be the sole provider (with the exception of U.S. news web CNN) of English-language programming.

Speculation here is that Wharf froze out Star over a possible rift between two powerful Chinese families — those of Star founder Li Ka Shing and the late shipping magnate Sir Y.K. Pao, who founded Wharf. Star owner Rupert Murdoch may have inadvertently fallen into the rift when he bought the satellite web from Li family interests.

But a Wharf exec said the company barely got its act together in time to accommodate its own basic package, much less Star’s.

“They tried to blame us by saying we had not talked to them about Star’s package, but that’s not true,” one Star insider said. “Everything was there. The signal for the four new pay channels has always been there.”

The Star team was celebrating the debut of its four pay TV channels, which it launched even though Wharf did not run them.

Although Wharf had nine months to prepare for its debut, the launch was marked by token subscriber numbers and scant marketing, besides no Star product.

Part of the distribution problem was eased late last week when it bought a 300,000-home distribution service from Fortress Satellite Services that will boost its own current setup, which passes 100,000 to 200,000 homes.

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