Robert Chua believes in the marketplace. A few years ago, the marketplace in Hong Kong wanted cheeky telephone lines – Diana’s “Squidgy” tapes, a blow-by-blow account of the colony’s most famous sex trial, involving extortion and starlets. Chua delivered.
Now his marketplace is China, and Chua sees a “position vacant” sign for Asia’s Walt Disney. China wants no sex, no violence and no news, and Chua is delivering China Entertainment Television (CETV).
“I’ve never produced sex and violence,” says the Singapore-born broadcaster, who operates out of Hong Kong and, prior to the launch of CETV, was manufacturing odorless ashtrays.
“I didn’t do adult hotlines. Maybe I went one step further and realized there is too much of that on the air. Now I just want to leave a good mark on society. Take, for example, what has happened in the West; it’s disgusting to have such programs as ‘Beavis and Butthead’ on the air. You don’t have to produce sex and violence to make money; Walt Disney made a lot of money. I believe we can do the same thing here by following his lead.”
On Dec. 1,1994, Chua started broadcasting CETV from the Chinese-owned APSTAR I satellite across Southeast Asia, with a specific focus on Chinese audiences. The Mandarin-language channel currently broadcasts for 12 hours a day, with one hour of original programming repeated six times, alternated with six hours of repeats from the previous week. It will go to 24 hours on March 11, with six new hours of programming each day.
Chua says one third will be repackaged programming from overseas, and one third “vintage” drama series from government broadcaster RTHK in Hong Kong.
Program content is in line with Chua’s own strongly-held conviction that Asian television should put the emphasis on Asian values and should avoid the kind of controversial elements which he – and the Chinese government – object to in Western programming.
Chua is a maverick; even his rivals will admit he has always been one step ahead of the game. In 1967, he produced Hong Kong’s first live TV program, called “Enjoy Yourself Tonight,” which is still going strong to this day. In 1974, he formed Robert Chua Productions (RCP) with his Chinese-born wife Peggy, producing TV commercials and corporate documentaries.
Five years later, RCP became the first media group in the world to sell foreign commercials to three Chinese TV stations.
He also had the bright idea to snap up copyrights for old Chinese film libraries from independent studios for VHS and Betamax formats. “People said I was a fool, but I got the rights perpetually for worldwide release,” Chua says. “They’re not saying I’m a fool now.”
Chua consistently refuses to name his backers. “My investors are from Hong Kong, China and Taiwan,” he says. “I have not fully concluded the list of investors yet; some haven’t agreed to our terms because I have to retain absolute program control. I have laid my reputation on the line with China, guaranteeing no sex, no violence, no news. Investors might press for a more commercial mix.”
Chua is filling his channel with innocuous game and talk shows with names like “Happy Families,” “Happy Times” and “Magic Moments,” interspersed with overseas product.
His production costs are low. “We had 80 staff at soft launch, with 150 by full launch. We’re lean and effective, small but very focused,” he says. Chua’s credentials on ground level as an “old friend” of Chinese broadcasters are well established – and practically unrivaled.
How he can turn his connections into hard cash is another matter. Chua is charging between $800 (off-peak) and $3,800 (primetime) for a 30-second slot on the free-to-air, wholly advertising-supported CETV, and has signed Hong Kong’s left-wing Wan Wei Po newspaper, as well as property firms in Guangdong and Shanghai as founder advertisers.
He is not charging cable operators for the service and plans to work with them on a revenue-sharing basis.
Chua has signed with Singapore Cable Vision, which goes on line this June; SkyCable in the Philippines, where the Mandarin-speaking community is admittedly “not so big”; and CMC in Taiwan, which promises 1.7 million households on launch in May.
The cable operators will sell local advertising to hotels, restaurants and other consumer industries on a revenue-share basis with Chua, while his Hong Kong sales team of 10 will sell to pan-Asian advertisers for CETV’s sole benefit.
Chua has not yet signed with a Chinese cable operator, although he says “every single cable operator I’ve met with wants to take CETV.”
“We don’t have enough content yet to justify a full channel,” Chua says. “The cable stations which have been taking some of our programs have promised to take CETV on full launch.”
But how long will it remain free? Chua says he’ll decide in what territories to encrypt CETV by the end of ’95. That is also the date when he’ll decide whether to compress the signal and launch a second, all-music channel – or he may lease out the spare satellite capacity to a “like-minded” broadcaster.
Chua’s focus with CETV is very specific, and many wonder whether he can forge a success aiming solely at the Chinese market – and depending entirely on ad revenue. He’s trying to repeat the STAR TV story – in the first 18 months of operation, the free-to-air STAR spent only $100 million on five pan-Asian channels.
“You can never discount Robert Chua’s contacts on the mainland,” says Robert Woo, director of Television Business Development, Asia, for Warner Bros. International TV Distribution. “And in the game, we’re all learning.”
The lessons from CETV remain to be seen.