Digital switchover is giving Cable TV a sporting chance

Conversion will double current channel count

HONG KONG — Trying to catch a particular sports event on television is almost a game in itself in Hong Kong.

It’s usually not too hard to find international soccer matches, local horse racing and the U.S.’ National Basketball Assn. games, but other sports, particularly those from North America, can be tricky.

Dominant pay TV operator Hong Kong Cable Television (Cable TV) looks about to change that, thanks to its conversion from analog to digital.

The shift, which started early last year and should be complete by 2005, is creating a greater capacity for channels and a platform for the company to respond to public demands.

The conversion allows for 120 channels, double the current number, and Chan says it may be up by another 20 by the end of the year.

On May 1 Cable TV began offering a pay-per-view package for the U.S. National Hockey League playoffs and finals.

“This is a great idea,” says Tim Noonan, a sports columnist for the South China Morning Post. “(Cable TV) actually listened to the viewers and responded to them. And it works out for the company because it gets new subscribers.”

Cable TV’s latest PPV offer comes after it put together a similar package in February for the cricket World Cup. It was so popular that Cable TV used feeds from ESPN Star Sports to launch a cricket channel last month.

“In Hong Kong soccer is the most appealing sport, so we offered that first,” says Garmen Chan, a spokesman for Cable TV. “But given the cosmopolitan nature of Hong Kong, people are interested in other sports, too. And now that we have increased capacity, we can introduce niche sports packaging.”

All this has helped lure auds — already, more than one-third of its 600,000 subscribers have converted from analog to digital set-top boxes.

Cable TV carries three channels dedicated to sports: Star Sports, ESPN (which together form the 50-50 joint venture ESPN Star Sports) and its own Cable Sports.

All three focus on soccer, with ESPN and Star Sports also airing basketball, car-racing, tennis, golf, bowling and extreme sports.

ESPN carried hockey until this year. “It is not all the fault of the programming executives,” Noonan wrote in a recent column lamenting the lack of key sports events. “It is also the fault of the major sporting leagues who seek exorbitant broadcast fees.”

As it began shifting to digital early last year, Cable TV started enhancing its basic package and introduced tiered packages for niche markets, bundling together Indian channels, international channels and adult channels.

The company’s shift is timely: New and upcoming pay TV operators are vying for subscribers and are trying to provide programming Cable TV doesn’t yet offer.

But Cable TV clearly recognizes where the holes lie and it is programming like mad to stay on top of its own game.

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