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Pay TV Web A Mixed Bag For Viewers

Australian viewers will get their first taste of American talker “Rolonda,” “Saturday Night Live,” upscale British dramas like “The Chief and “The Managaress” and sumo wrestling when a new pay TV channel launches March 30.

That eclectic assortment will adorn the sked of a general entertainment channel which program chief Paul Ridley hopes will provide something for everybody.

His theory will take a while to test, because the Galaxy cluster of pay channels thus far has fewer than 5,000 subscribers.

Pay TV is in its infancy, since Australis Media’s Premier Sports Network, the first of Galaxy’s eight channels, launched late January, and its two movie channels premiered March 3.

XYZ is negotiating to provide four channels to Galaxy starting March 30. Apart from the British-flavored entertainment channel, much of it culled and copied from the U.K.’s innovative Channel Four, the lineup consists of Quest (docus from National Geographic, the U.K.’s Central TV and others); Max/Classic Max (children’s and family fare drawn mostly from the libraries of Turner, ITC, and Aussie distrib Beyond); and music.

XYZ is soon expected to announce non-exclusive licensing deals with most of the major record labels and many indies.

XYZ is a programming entity co-owned by U.S. cabler Century Communications and United Intl. Holdings, an American investor in foreign cable companies. Century along with Australian entrepreneur Greg Solomon’s East Coast Television owns the “A” satellite license. (Australis owns the “B” sat license and is also transmitting the Galaxy channels on microwave).

Ridley, the former aquisitions chief of Television New Zealand, was recruited to XYZ last January, and was confronted with a short lead time to assemble programming for Quest, Classic Max and the entertainment channel.

“I had to buy a lot of hours very quickly,” said Ridley, who did some “serious” buying at the NATPE convention. He’s attending next month’s Mip market with XYZ executive producer Paul Melville. Ridley acknowledges the Australian free-to-air nets will continue to get first crack at hot new U.S. and British product, but says that leaves ample scope for his channels.

“The networks will go for anything that’s new and 10 out of 10. We’ll be looking for shows that may (score) 8 or 9, which they don’t go for.”

More than 80% of the entertainment channel’s programming has never been seen in Australia, according to XYZ.

Full details won’t be unveiled for another week or so, but execs also promise British and Australian soaps, gameshows, lifestyle programs, miniseries, cabaret and sitcoms. Australis, which earlier this month signed a 25-year equity and licensing deal with the News Corp./Telstra cable co-venture Foxtel, ran up a $A31.6 million ($23.3 million) loss in the half year to December.

The red ink was expected as Australis shelled out many millions in development and startup costs including the purchase of microwave licenses. Analyst Alex Pollak of Macquarie Equities forecast a full-year loss of about $A110 million ($81 million), but noted Australis is raising $200 million in the U.S. and will receive investments totaling $A71.4 million ($52 million) from News Corp. and Telstra.

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