Star beams into more places

Star Television, the Hong Kong-based satellite-delivered programmer owned by Rupert Murdoch, is now seen in more than 42 million homes, according to a survey released Wednesday.

The results indicate the number of households receiving Star TV’s five channels has skyrocketed by 279% in 10 months.

The survey was conducted between September and November l993 by Frank Small and Associates in 13 of the 53 countries covered by the mammoth-like Star satellite footprint.

Among the noteworthy growth areas: In China, more than 30 million homes receive Star TV, up from an estimated 5 million at the end of l992. That number now represents almost a quarter of all TV households in the country; viewership in urban areas of India — another crucial territory for Star — rose 121% to 7 million homes; Taiwan now has 2.4 million viewers able to pick up Star, nearly half of all TV homes; the audience in the Middle East now exceeds the 1 million mark.

The survey comes in the wake of a key management change at Star, with the replacement of James Griffiths, the CEO of the service for the last five months, by Gary Davey, a top executive at Murdoch’s other satellite service, BSkyB in the U.K. Griffiths has returned to the Fox fold in L.A. to take a key senior level job.

The figures also come as Murdoch himself prepares to spend more time and energy on expanding Star’s penetration and developing its relationships with the authorities in China.

Murdoch took over a majority stake in the operation from Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. and the family of billionaire Li Ka-shing last August after flirting with a rival broadcaster, Hong Kong’s TVB.

Commenting on the results achieved at Star in the past six months, Star chairman Sam Chisholm said, “We’ve done a lot of work both on the ground and in the sky so far. … We intend in l994 to provide greater choice for our viewers with more channels and a clear strategy for the expansion of pay TV.”

It is expected that Star will encrypt several of its channels, including the English-language movie channel, within the next 12 months.

Chisholm would not be drawn on the issue of advertising revenues for the five-channel service, saying only that growth so far “is satisfactory.” The service has deals with over 700 advertisers, he said. He did say that recent research indicates that Star’s share of viewership in homes in India that receive Star is now approximately 50%, suggesting that where the service is available, people are tuning in.

Recent reports out of the Far East have suggested that Star TV is losing up to $ 1 million a week, but Chisholm would not comment on financial matters. Murdoch’s Sky TV was losing twice that amount in the U.K. before the service was merged with the rival direct-to-home satellite service BSB in late l990. BSkyB went into the black 18 months later.

Although Star has a clear advantage over potential pan-Asian programming rivals by virtue of its vastly more extensive footprint, it still faces, say sources, enormous challenges: It must convince advertisers that there is a viable and sufficiently well-heeled audience to justify significant ad spend; it must convince authorities in China and other countries that the service is a blessing and not a threat; and it must obtain enough quality programming — in various languages and stylistic traditions — to attract viewers.

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