Australian TV to Reach Into Asia

As networks gear up for expansion, government opens to more US shows

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

ASIANS may soon be learning more about shrimp on the barbie and other aspects of Australian culture.

Starting in late January or early February, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is planning to transmit eight to 10 hours per day of Down Under programming. It will beam the signals from Indonesia's Palapa satellite, which has a footprint stretching from Taiwan to Northern Australia.

In a marked change from its policy at home, the ABC will accept commercial advertising on its service, to be called Australian Television International (ATVI).

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The ABC will be competing with a growing number of media companies to reach a potential market of more than 1 billion people. Only a small fraction of the potential audience currently have satellite dishes, but the Australians say the number of receiving dishes in the region is growing rapidly.

Many Asians currently listen to the ABC on its shortwave station, Radio Australia. However, managing director David Hill says the expansion reflects the view "that while shortwave radio is relevant now and into the next century, there is a shift occurring in Asia away from shortwave listening to television."

The move by the ABC has also been prompted by Prime Minister Paul Keating's desire to orient Australia closer to Asia and further from Europe and America. "There is a growing realization [that] our future is as part of Asia," says Mr. Hill.

Thus, the Australian government is funding the start-up costs, reported to be $A 5.4 million, or about $4 million.

ATVI will compete against ESPN, an American sports network, Cable News Network International (CNN), and HBO Asia, based in Singapore. CNN now reaches 10.4 million households in 20 countries. It, too, uses the Indonesian Palapa satellite.

The Discovery Channel is now in the process of negotiating for a transponder on the Palapa satellite. "If negotiations go well we should have Pan Asian service around September of 1993," says Sandy McGovern, senior vice president of international business development at Discovery Communications Inc. Broadcasts will be in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin.

There is growing local competition as well. For example, in Thailand there are currently five local channels plus cable television. A spokesman at the Thai Embassy reports the country is adding six new channels and plans to have its own satellite next year. Malaysia is also planning for its own satellite.

Hill says the Aussies will be able to compete because of their quality programming. ATVI will place a heavy emphasis on education and children's programming and less time on entertainment. There will be an hour-long regional news program and short news updates every 30 minutes.

Hill says broadcasting beyond Australia's borders requires "sensitivity." For example, Hill says ATVI will not be beaming down episodes of "Embassy," a drama that takes place in an Australian embassy in a fictional Southeast Asian Muslim country. Malaysia, which resembles the country portrayed, has complained about "Embassy" in the past.

Hill says the ABC will not censor its reporting of the news to assuage local sensitivities. For example, Indonesia faces an armed conflict in East Timor, where its troops massacred protesters last year. "There won't be any censorship of our news, and I must say in fairness the Indonesians don't expect it," Hill says.

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