Sony, U bow channels in Asia, Europe

In yet another wave of international channel development, two Hollywood studios, Sony and Universal, announced launches of channels abroad Wednesday — and both programmers have action-adventure as their major thematic thrust.

Sony Pictures Entertainment is launching a pan-Asian satellite service this fall to be called AXN and will deliver four feeds covering Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Japan beginning Sept. 21.

Universal Studios is preparing to unleash 13th Street – The Action and Suspense Channel, and will first target France and then Spain and Germany. Launch date in France is Nov. 13. The other territories follow in early 1998.

Both studios will rely initially on their substantial libraries of action-adventure film and TV series titles, but both say they will progressively acquire outside product and even co-produce with local partners in the relevant territories.

The launch of wholesale satellite channel spinoffs is potentially a more effective way of delivering abroad the vast quantities of content that the Hollywood studios own, though so far the revenues from such overseas startups are modest. Selling programs piecemeal or in packages to over-the-air broadcasters is still much more lucrative.

Sony and Universal face different challenges in building their action franchises and making them profitable: Sony is launching AXN in what is essentially an undeveloped media environment, where subscriber fees, encryption practices and the regional advertising base are uncertain.

Universal, on the other hand, is diving into a highly competitive — some would say program-saturated — environment where costs are higher and viewers are extremely picky.

Neither studio expects to break even on its venture for at least three years. And neither would put a price on their channel initiatives. Outside sources said, though, that studio bosses are putting “high priorities” on such ventures and generally expect to fork out “a couple of hundred million dollars” before they see a return.

The two studios are taking somewhat different approaches to their ventures.

The thrust of Universal’s channel is as a pipeline for the studio’s vast library. Top TV tickets include high-profile series such as “Miami Vice,” “Magnum P.I.” and “The A-Team” — which had successful runs on over-the-air broadcasters in Europe — and will now in effect be testing Europeans’ appetites for reruns. There will also be new syndicated fare like Universal’s upcoming “New York Undercover” and “American Gothic” premiering on the channel.

Perhaps because its parent company is Japanese and because Sony’s internal research shows the key attractiveness of the action genre with Asian audiences, especially young males, AXN plans to draw on a variety of sources, Asian as well as Western, to fill its round-the-clock service.

Jackie Chan films and extreme sports have already been snapped up by Sony for the service. Syndicated fare like “Silk Stalkings” and “Highlander” and movies like “In the Line of Fire” will also be part of the mix.

“Over the past 18 months we identified a trend and an audience for (the kind of product we’re offering),” said Jon Feltheimer, president of Columbia TriStar Television Group and exec VP of SPE, “and we have a lot of experience now in doing local production in various territories around the world.”

Sony already operates alone or jointly with partners general entertainment channels in Latin America and India, a music channel in Germany and the premium movie channel HBO Asia together with Time Warner. In Japan, Sony is partnered with Rupert Murdoch for an upcoming digital platform called JSkyB, which presumably will be the launch pad for AXN in that territory.

Over at Universal the mandate to develop channels abroad has been quickened by the digital platform deals the studio concluded in various European territories over the past 18 months. These deals foresaw the development by U of a branded channel, which could supply the different Euro platforms with the kind of product not readily produced in Europe.

“This channel is the first launch of a global brand that reflects the interests of the individual markets … And we really wanted to go where the growth and the money is,” said Blair Westlake, Universal Studios president of pay TV and television business development.

Although Europe is a highly competitive and sophisticated marketplace, Westlake points out that the startup subscriber base for the service, just in France, is 500,000. The Spanish platform, also Canal Plus-backed, currently boasts 100,000 subs, and in Germany the Kirch-Premiere joint platform will by 1998 have a projected 1.5 million subs.

Westlake emphasized that 13th Street will incorporate mystery and suspense programming, two popular genres throughout Europe. Hitchcock films, for example, will make their way onto the service.

The 13th Street service will debut in France on the Canal Plus-spearheaded digital platform CanalSatellite. It will run for 20 hours a day and will involve a locally hired Universal staff of about 25.

Tony Garland, senior VP, Universal Studios Networks, was hired three weeks ago by Westlake to help oversee from his London posting the channel launches of 13th Street across Europe.

Over at Sony, Michael Grindon, president of Columbia TriStar Intl. Television, will be playing a key role in the rollout of AXN to the various subdistributors and cable operators in Asia. Grindon said that AXN will be tailored to local markets, with Asian movies, local VJ hosts and locally produced action sports.

Other execs involved in the AXN venture are James Buklarewicz, who has been named chief executive of AXN and will be based in Singapore; Dewy Ip, senior VP of network operations based in Hong Kong; and William Pfeiffer, senior VP and general manager Asia, who is based in Singapore.

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