The stage is set for a head-on confrontation between two business news channels in Asia. The question is, can both survive in this niche market?

That’s how a newscaster on Asia Business News or CNBC Asia might describe their unfolding battle for viewers and advertising dollars – in the unlikely event that either acknowledged the other’s existence.

On the question of survival, Paul France, CEO of the Singapore-based ABN is refreshingly candid. “Is there room for two players? No,” said the boss of the channel co-owned by Tele-Communications Inc., Dow Jones & Co., Television New Zealand and Asian investors.

France figures ABN has an unbeatable lead, having been on air for more than 15 months to establish the ABN brand and extend its reach to 13 million homes. And he takes a shot at the NBC upstart by stressing, “We’re not an Asian branch of an American company. All of our output is designed in Asia, for Asia.

“We’re enormously flattered that (NBC) decided to have a go at us, but they’ll have a hard job.”

CNBC Asia, which is due to launch in June, has a different concept, according to NBC Asia chairman Patrick Cox. Its service will comprise 10 hours daily and live from Hong Kong, 10 hours from the U.S. and the rest from Europe.

The underlying thread, according to Cox, is to “be live from the (financial) market that’s running things.” It will be localized for Asia via video linkups with Tokyo, Bombay, Singapore and possibly other centers, he adds.

This is a high-stakes business. France estimates ABN’s launch costs at $20 million. He expects to hit break-even in five years. NBC will see a payback on CNBC Asia “in three to four years,” Cox said.

ABN has a payroll of 105 (including 45 editorial people) in Singapore and Hong Kong plus a network of correspondents and Dow Jones bureaus. CNBC will have 120 staffers at its Hong Kong h.q. plus 30-40 people in the region.

Asked if he saw room for two players, Cox responded, “I don’t know. They’ll find that out. In this small market niche, you have to operate globally.”

ABN carries eight minutes of advertising per hour. France won’t open his books but says revenues are on target and the channel has 50 advertisers.

Some advertising agencies in Asia believe that new TV outlets like ABN and CNBC will boost the amount of ad coin flowing into broadcasting, at the expense of print media.

“I think the market probably is big enough for both of them but it’s likely to develop into a tough fight,” said Gary Brown, regional media director for Leo Burnett in Hong Kong.

Brown’s agency does business with ABN and is keen to work with CNBC too.

A preview channel for CNBC Asia culled from CNBC and CNBC Europe, called ANBC, launched last month in Australia via pay operator Galaxy and on Hong Kong’s Wharf Cable.

CNBC currently airs from midnight to 8 a.m. on the Australian Broadcasting Corp.’s Asian sat service, Australia Television. Cox says he has signed deals for at least 8-10 markets, and he expects CNBC Asia to reach five million homes at the end of the first year.

Both rivals insist they’re overcoming the loss of the Apstar 2 satellite (it exploded after launch last month), which was to be a distribution platform for both. The bird would have had a massive footprint stretching from Australia to India and across China and Japan.

“We’re negotiating for capacity on other satellites which will take care of all our needs, but not as neatly. It will cost us a bit more,” said France.

ABN currently reaches 1 million homes in Taiwan, 600,000 in Indonesia, and 200,000 apiece in Thailand and the Philippines. It feeds a daily 90 minute program to 1.5 million homes in Hong Kong via TVB’s channel Pearl, and is negotiating to enter Japan and South Korea. In June ABN will launch in Singapore on the new cable system. It’s seen on cable in Bombay and France says he’s talking to Indian pubcaster Doordarshan about carriage on its webs.

ABN has a U.S. outlet in TCI’s Intl. Channel which reaches more than 6 million homes and airs a daily program from the Asian channel.

To cover the loss of Apstar 2, Cox says NBC is doing deals with other satellite operators, which will complete its coverage of the region. Via the Russian-owned Express bird, it will beam into India.

Both are targeting China. ABN will distribute a daily Mandarin-language review program to Chinese stations via barter deals starting midyear.

Finn Halligan in Hong Kong contributed to this report.