Flick across the TV dial in Indonesia, and the offerings span everything from local dramas, comedies, news, religious teachings and kung fu programs to quiz shows, MTV and a sprinkling of Yank series like “Walker, Texas Ranger” and “Melrose Place.”

That variety is astounding considering Indonesia was served only by pubcaster TVRI until the arrival of the first privately owned TV network, RCTI, in l989.

Five terrestrial webs now battle for advertising dollars and viewers, along with TVRI (which has not aired commercials since the 1970s after being accused of encouraging consumerism). There’s also an array of pay services delivered by DBS operator Indovision.

The upshot has been a burgeoning choice of programs, a massive increase in local production and escalating license fees for U.S. suppliers.

“Five is enough,” said Minister of Information Harmoko last January at the launch of the latest entrant, Indosiar. The TV advertising pie grew to $350 million last year and is forecast to hit nearly $450 million this year, yet most of the upstart webs are still in the red.

Only the pioneer, RCTI, claims to be “reasonably profitable,” says Peter Langlois, programming adviser to the RCTI board.

Langlois believes there’s room for significant growth in broadcasting as per capita income rises, and ad spending along with it. The main challenge, as Langlois sees it, is to try to keep local production at a reasonable cost and quality level. Some 35% to 40% of RCTI’s airtime is local programming, and the U.S. accounts for most of the foreign content.

Competition has forced up the license fees for Yank series from $1,000 per hour, when RCTI started, to $3,000. A really hot series can command $5,000. The typical U.S. movie, which fetched $5,000 five years ago, now goes for $12,000 to $15,000, and blockbusters run as high as $25,000.

RCTI has a sister station, SCTV, with which it shares a newsroom and jointly buys foreign programming. SCTV introduced soap operas from Mexico, which quickly became popular, and it commissions a lot of local series and telepics.

SCTV public relations chief Yuli Ismartono explains, “The (private) TV industry is very young. Every station is groping in the dark to find out what’s best for its market.”

RCTI is neck and neck in the primetime ratings with Indosiar, the web owned by the Salim group, controlled by Indonesia’s richest man. Hong Kong’s dominant broadcaster, TVB, is providing technical and programming assistance, including a kung fu series, “Return of the Condor Heroes,” a big winner for Indosiar.

Last month, Indosiar led with a 36 share of primetime viewing, pursued by RCTI with 29, then SCTV with 12, TVRI and TPI, each with 10, and ANteve with 3.

Indosiar president Anky Handoko says the web has spent $120 million from startup through its first six months, and will reach break-even on cash flow “very soon.” His web airs 65% local content, 35% imported.

TPI’s revenue is growing at 20% a year, and the company will be profitable in three years, according to director Dr. Abdullah Alatas Fahmi.

Launched in 1991, TPI is an innovative mix of educational and entertainment programs. It has the highest local programming (80%) of all Indonesian webs. Its foreign fare is drawn from Japan, India, China, South Korea and Malaysia. The sked consists of religious teachings and lessons for schools, peppered with local dramas, comedies and films. Some 40% of its content is produced in-house, the balance commissioned from about 100 indies.

Fahmi says TPI aims to be “the backbone” of the Indonesian film industry in buying telepics, and, just recently, TPI co-produced its first two movies for theatrical release.

TPI airs a locally produced animation series, “Satria Indonesia (Indonesian Knight),” which Fahmi says is made for a cost effective $50,000 an hour.

ANteve started as a regional station 21/2 years ago, and expanded nationally early last year. It serves the youth market until 5 p.m., and in May started airing seven hours of MTV Asia each day.

ANteve chief Dennis Cabalfin says he was attracted to MTV as a brand name that delivers the ideal demographics. He’s keen to build the station’s overall ratings from the current 4%-5% to 12%-15% by the end of this year. It will be a longer haul to reach profitability, which Cabalfin says is six to seven years away.

ANteve screens a small amount of U.S. programs, and would like to buy more U.S. movies. But license fees have shot up by 200% to 300%, and “that’s a worry,” he says. The web has also commissioned Grundy Worldwide to produce a local version of “Family Feud.”

Is there room for five private webs?

“It’s tight,” admits Cabalfin. “Everyone is hoping the advertising market will continue to increase.”

TVRI is funded by license fees and payments of 12.5% of annual earnings from the private webs.

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