Colony Faces Big Broadcast Issues

The impending handover of Hong Kong to China on July 1,1997, continues to overshadow the broadcasting industry here, with the upcoming Broadcasting Bill – designed to meld three separate areas of current legislation together into one comprehensive package-proving a hot topic.

The bill, still being finalized, will be checked by Chinese authorities before being passed by the Legislative Council sometime in March or April of 1996.

One of the issues at stake is the future of pay TV in Hong Kong, which is still a monopoly for Wharf Cable until June 1996. How long it will remain that way after the cutoff date is an issue of much debate, with the government talking about further tendering processes, and STAR TV, Hong Kong Telecom’s Video on Demand and other interested parties demanding instant and full access to the market.

Cable TV has reached the limit of its microwave delivery capability as a hard-wire system is being built, with subscription still sluggish at 150,000 homes, a tenth of Hong Kong’s households.

Of Hong Kong’s two terrestrial stations, ATV is still struggling, and TVB is seeing audience drops. At the beginning of the decade, Cantonese-lingo TVB Jade took a 90% share of the audience, which is now down to 65% thanks to ATV’s aggressive pioneering of “Hard Copy”-style tabloid TV shows.

ATV is privately owned, but it has been reported that annual losses shrank to $11 million in the last financial year, compared to 10 times that figure in 1991.

September’s profits for TVB showed a 32% drop over the same period in 1994, although TVB’s overseas arm, TVB International, remains strong. Its Superchannel expanded reach from Taiwan to the Philippines and Thailand, and TVBI will distribute CNBC in Taiwan. TVBI has also concluded the purchase of 52% of The Chinese Channel serving overseas Chinese in Europe, and its chairman, Sir Run Run Shaw, has announced his intention of starting a movie channel from the estimated 100,000 hours of programming in TVB and Shaw Bros.’ vaults.

But STAR TV, licensed to operate in Hong Kong, is expanding the quickest – AsiaSat 2 lifted off Nov. 28 with a vastly expanded digital platform for Rupert Murdoch’s pan-Asian satcaster.

STAR has taken eight transponders on AsiaSat 2, which using optimal digital compression could mean 80 channels, although a 4: 1 compression rate has been discussed, which would result in 32 channels.

A spokesman said the final mix had yet to be finalized, but already confirmed is a Filipino movie channel called VIVA Cinema, a Japanese sports/music/entertainment channel called STAR Plus Japan, which will launch in April, an Indonesian platform of channels, including the Bahasa Film Channel, and eight to 15 others. STAR has already confirmed carriage of CNBC Asia and NBC Super Channel.

All this means that Tony Watts, STAR Movies’ general manager, will be one of the busiest attendees at Mip Asia this year. Watts confirmed he was looking for general entertainment to go into Japan, new Mandarin-language “A” titles for the Taiwanese market, and family films for the STAR Movies Channel.

STAR already offers four encrypted services, including the subscription ZEE Cinema Hindi-language film channel.

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