Western Investors Find Dangers Surround the Prize : Heeding the Siren Song of Asian TV

CANNES: The once and future promised land of Asian television is turning out to be a mine field. "We could all lose our buns out here," said Ted Turner, addressing broadcasters recently in Hong Kong.

Sobered by the spectacle of Rupert Murdoch's STAR TV hemorrhaging losses estimated at $500,000 a week, candidates vying for position in the anticipated Asian television gold rush are looking long and hard before leaping into the potentially lucrative field.

Despite the dangers, the lure of the Asian prize is irresistible. At this week's MIP-TV international television market in Cannes, American, European, as well as Asian broadcasters sketched their plans for cracking the largely untapped market. NBC, Britain's Thames Television, the Australian Broadcasting Corp., the Japanese public network NHK, and the independent Hong Kong programmer Robert Chua all announced major initiatives in the region.

The demographics are staggering - in China alone, television advertising is predicted to be worth $1.7 billion by 1996, according to Kay Koplovitz of the international council of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, the organization that presents the Emmy awards. In India, the cable networks are signing on new subscribers at the rate of 5,000 households a day, she said.

Patrick Cox, who oversees Asian program development as the managing director of NBC Europe, said that NBC had already reserved two transponders on the Asian satellite Apstar 2, set for launch next year, and was negotiating with Reuters and Thames Television for the creation of a joint Asian business channel. He acknowledged, however, that the network was being "very careful" with its planned expansion into the volatile Asian market.

Even Japanese broadcasters are finding it difficult to break into television markets elsewhere in Asia. "The Asian countries are extremely wary - not just of American and European cultural invasion, but of Japanese as well," said Akira Saito, managing director of NHK. The network nonetheless managed the delicate political maneuver of obtaining China-Taiwan cooperation in its series on the palace treasures of Beijing and Taipei.

NHK aspires to become a "point of contact" bridging American and European broadcasters to Asia, Mr. Saito said, and it is beefing up its own news coverage within the region.

The Australian Broadcasting Corp. is another player aggressively courting Asian audiences - particularly with its news services, drawn from 10 regional bureaus. The network maintains rebroadcast agreements that allow the channel to be transmitted to terrestrial stations in China, Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Sensitive to Asian mores, Australian Broadcasting hews assiduously to editorial guidelines that warn reporters and programmers away from disparaging figures of authority or depicting nakedness.

David Hill, Australian Broadcasting's managing director, defended this policy. "A lot of American broadcasters view Asian attitudes to sex and authority as restrictions on free press, as a case of dictatorial regimes trying to quash the media," he said. "But this critique is far too superficial. It's not a question of censorship; it's a question of traditions and tastes."

Apart from the cultural divide separating Asia from Western broadcasters, another financial hurdle is the lack of pan-Asian advertising. Mr. Hill is hopeful that new advertisers will come on board, but so far only a handful have signed on with the network - Foster's Brewing Group Ltd., Qantas Airways Ltd. and Digital Equipment Corp. among them.

Mr. Chua is another who is bullish on emerging pan-Asian advertising and confident of capturing the Chinese market with his Chinese Entertainment Television channel. Mr. Chua asserts that he has lined up more than enough potential partners willing to invest $100 million in this 24-hour Mandarin- language service, aimed at 1.25 billion mainland and overseas Chinese.

The Singapore-born Mr. Chua, who created Hong Kong's longest-running TV series, "Enjoy Yourself Tonight" and has made a fortune in commercials and corporate videos, may have the expertise and financial clout to make good on his promises. He has paid $1.8 million to reserve transponder space on Apstar 1, the satellite owned by the Chinese government scheduled for launch later this year. Programming on his CETV will be a mix of talk and quiz shows and situation comedies, Mr. Chua said. "No Kung Fu movies and no news. My pockets may not be as deep as the big boys," he added, alluding to Sir Run Run Shaw's TVB, Mr. Murdoch's STAR and American investors such as Viacom Inc. and Time Warner Inc., "but I have decades of experience in programming for this region and know how not to upset the people."

In the end, this knack may prove more successful than plowing vast sums of capital into a market that continues to elude Western investors.

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