Star in the East heralds TV revolution: No nation in Asia can resist the Hong Kong-based satellite station, writes Teresa Poole

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The Independent Online
WHEN the forest headquarters of Burma's minority rebel armies was under threat last year from the Rangoon army, a strange sight could be seen most evenings.

As the occasional shell exploded in the distance, rebel leaders would gather in one of Manerplaw's teak wood houses perched by the river border with Thailand. Outside stood a large satellite dish. Inside, all were watching a Taiwanese pop show, beamed by Star TV from Hong Kong, and interspersed with ads for Nike running shoes and Hennessy brandy.

Last month, in Peking, a growing number of homes, bored by the state channels' fulsome coverage of the National People's Congress, could switch to an evening with The Bold & The Beautiful and Santa Barbara. The programmes were interrupted, in the best American soap opera tradition, by ads for washing powder - only this time with Indian housewives commending Indian brands aimed at audiences in faraway cities such as Delhi, Bombay and Madras.

Asia's satellite television revolution is transforming the habits of some of the world's most populous and remote regions. Tales abound of peasants erecting dustbin lids and giant woks to pick up the Star TV satellite signals, which cast a 'footprint' over 38 countries from Turkey to Japan, Mongolia to Indonesia.

More reliable, validated figures released in February show that 11.36 million households (45 million people) in 13 of those countries can now receive Star TV, about three times the number eight months earlier. Some 116,368 hotel rooms also offer the service.

And people are watching. In many countries the local newspapers carry satellite TV programme listings. But Star TV also started a 'fax on demand' service in June 1992 offering weekly schedules. So far it has received some 365,000 faxes, including some from North Korea, Vietnam and Yemen. More than 116,000 calls have come from China.

Hong Kong-based Star TV, controlled by the colony's richest man, Li Ka-shing, started broadcasting in August 1991 amid much scepticism from the television industry and advertisers. By the end of that year its five 24-hour, 'free- to-air' channels - Prime Sports, MTV, the Mandarin channel, BBC World Service TV, and the Star Plus entertainment channel - were up and running. Anyone with the equipment can pick up the programmes free; the company's revenue comes from advertising sales.

All countries receive the same programmes and the same ads. But the eight time zones in the 'footprint' allow some country targeting. Chinese video jockeys who can slip into Mandarin appear on MTV when Taiwan and China tune in; the American soaps that are hugely popular with Indian audiences can be scheduled for their peak viewing hours.

But apart from the impact of introducing Riviera to millions of new Asian viewers, Star TV, like Cable Network News, is also challenging strict government media controls in the region's politically more repressed countries. Nowhere is this more true than in China, where the daily diet of state propaganda cannot compete with Star TV's offerings, including the BBC channel, now also available in peak hours with a Mandarin sound track.

A Hong Kong newspaper reported a Peking government memo which warned that 'the struggle in the airwaves between us and the enemy will be fierce'.

TV sets have been common for years; there is now more than one television per household in Peking. Dishes are used legally by the provinces to pick up the Chinese state channels, and can easily be tuned to Star TV. It is illegal to use a private dish to pick up foreign satellite television, but there are 150 dish manufacturers in China now and the equipment is on sale widely in Peking and other cities. A study based on data from the State Statistical Bureau concluded that 4.8 million households in China can receive Star TV. Mao Tse-tung's terror of 'spiritual pollution' would seem to have a worthy adversary.

In Malaysia and Singapore, satellite dishes are more rigorously restricted. The only other black hole is Bhutan, where there is no television, although this has not stopped Bhutan Board Products from advertising on Star TV.

It is India that has provided some of the most startling growth with 3.3 million households able to receive Star TV, a rise of 160 per cent compared with mid- 1992. One satellite receiver is often used to cable up a whole neighbourhood, and there are some 15,000 private cable operators. Indian state television has attempted to reclaim viewers with Dallas.

There have been other spin- offs across the region. MTV airings of Indian and Chinese pop videos have created unexpected Asian hits. A big satellite TV support industry has been spawned, from programme guides to dish manufacturers; domestic TV and video producers have been spurred to improve their products.

As a Hong Kong-based broadcaster, the output is governed by the colony's strict rules on nudity and violence. The company's own standards and practices would veto, for instance, Madonna's racier videos.

'We take very specal care to make sure we have a sensitivity to the many cultures,' explained Arnold Tucker, an executive vice- president. 'You don't want to do anything ever to offend your audience or your advertiser.' The company was also 'not in the business of ticking off governments', said Mr Tucker, but Star TV exercises no editorial control over the BBC channel.

Satellite TV can help advertisers to get around domestic bans, for instance on promoting imported liquor or sanitary towels. Star TV has also prompted a new trend in pan-Asian advertising for consumer products and financial services, where one ad is designed to suit a wide range of audiences. But advertisers can also use Star TV to reach the spot markets of India and Taiwan where the channels' reach makes it economic.

This can have unexpected results: one Indian fire-extinguisher manufacturer, planning to boost local demand, suddenly found himself flooded by export orders.

(Map omitted)