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HONG KONG — Is China’s Barbara Walters feeling the heat? When Hong Kong-based program producer Sun Television Cybernetworks — the brainchild of Chinese talkshow host Yang Lan — announced a share-swap deal with struggling mainland Internet portal site Sina.com last week, many commentators were mystified about its benefits.

Some suggested the hookup smacked of desperation and that Yang’s fairy-tale ascent in the TV world may be faltering.

Shares in Sun — which creates blocks of imported and self-produced shows and advertisements for cable programmers — have slumped more than 80% since February last year to just over one cent. The tie-up with Sina offers synergy for broadband content — but no immediate revenue relief.

“They haven’t really clearly identified their strategy at this point,” says Matthew McGarvey, a Beijing-based analyst at tech research firm IDC.

Sun, which claims it reaches 70 million households in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, specializes in historical and documentary fodder aimed at China’s growing middle class. It has exclusive use of A&E Channels’ programming in Greater China and last week announced the acquisition of Capital Channel, giving it access to content from Discovery Channel, Fashion TV, China Movies Group and MTV Asia.

Meteoric rise

Yang, now in her 30s, started out as a 21-year-old anchorwoman on state-owned broadcaster CCTV but made her name by attracting record audiences to her talkshows on satcaster Phoenix, part-owned by News Corp.

At the peak of her fame, she left Phoenix early last year to set up Sun with her husband, television entrepreneur Bruno Wu. The couple set out to capture a slice of the Chinese television market, where vague hints of deregulation and a burgeoning advertising market have TV players salivating at potentially huge growth rates.

Three months ago, Sun claimed it was achieving a broadcasting “miracle,” but things look less miraculous these days. It lost $16 million in the last fiscal year — and the path to market dominance in China is still fraught with regulatory difficulties.

Now industry watchers are anxious to see if Yang can use her talkshow skills to smooth over her company’s rough patch.

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