Shifting Star of the East

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The Independent Online
Star TV's announcement that from 17 April it is dropping the BBC World Service television news channel from the satellite beam that covers China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea, represented a triumph for entertainment over information. It showed Star's need to raise revenue and its understanding that in east Asia it is entertainment, not news, that attracts viewers. Dropping the BBC frees one of the five transmission channels on the northern beam - and Star plans to use this for a new mixed Mandarin- and English-language movie channel. Hong Kong's stable of kung fu action movies, thrillers and comedies will provide a 24-hour diversion on the new Star Movies channel.

The movie channel is aimed primarily at the Taiwan market, where nearly 50 per cent of all homes are able to receive Star's free-to-air programming. Earlier this year Star TV abandoned plans to supply pay-television to Hong Kong after disagreements with the colony's new cable television operator, Wharf Cable. Taiwan offers a much larger and similarly wealthy audience on which to concentrate; a significant pay-TV audience would boost revenue and pave the way for Star's planned expansion of pay-television.

Gary Davey, Star TV's chief executive, last week told a cable and television conference in Hong Kong that 'fundamental changes in strategy' were in hand. The theory of pan-Asian broadcasting is to be refined. 'We are going to pay greater attention to local needs, tastes and sensitivities,' he said. There will be more emphasis on local variations and different language options. The music channel, MTV, will be divided, with one focus on South Asia and the other on the demands of the Greater China market.

China, though, despite having the world's fastest-growing economy, is becoming a much harder satellite television market to capture than first imagined: it can only be exploited through deals agreed with the government. China is now Star TV's largest market, accounting for 72 per cent of the homes receiving its free-to-air channels. The most recent viewer survey conducted by Star TV shows a 536 per cent increase during 1993 in the number of Chinese households receiving satellite television. More than 30 million homes can receive Star TV. Television is the country's favourite pastime; sales of colour sets rose by 17.4 per cent last year.

But the Chinese government does not want its people to watch uncensored foreign broadcasts. The officials want to control any foreign television programme that can be seen by the Chinese people. This month new regulations were introduced strictly limiting the ownership of satellite dishes and the broadcast of foreign programmes on domestic channels. Broadcasting foreign programmes by local relay and cable stations without permission is banned. . And manufacturers of dishes or shops that sell satellite equipment must be registered.

If foreign broadcasters want to get their programmes into China, they must do so by agreement. In January, ABC Australia Television signed a deal with China's Ministry of Radio, Film and Television that will allow the transmission of ABC's international programme on Chinese domestic television. Chinese stations will be allowed to downlink ABC satellite transmissions for re-broadcast. Thus Chinese officials will be able to choose which programmes to re- transmit.

It is a pattern that is likely to govern most deals with censorship-prone Asian governments. China's burgeoning cable television market could still prove a willing buyer as operators learn what attracts viewers. The government is stressing that the emphasis should be on domestic- made rather than foreign programming, but about one- third of programmes are still from the West, despite the new laws.