Satellite Broadcasts Create Stir Among Asian Regimes

CHEN DEZHONG barely got his spanking new satellite dish atop his gray-tiled roof before the government lowered the boom.

In early October, Mr. Chen, an employee of a foreign electronics firm, bought the dish and a color television for $2,200 and proudly perched the receiver above the crowded courtyard house he shares with his mother and four other families. Every Sunday, delighted neighbors packed the small Chen home to watch foreign sports, soap operas, and serials via satellite.

But a week after Chen bought his dish, government propagandists worried about the proliferation of subversive foreign satellite broadcasts in China barred most people from using the dishes to receive television programs. The ban set Chen's mother fretting that the dish would be confiscated and her son would get into trouble. But it didn't bother Chen. ``He just plans to move the dish elsewhere instead of sitting it on the roof,'' shrugs a neighbor.

Flustered autocrats across Asia are struggling to contain the spreading reach of satellite broadcasting, which is turning the world's most populous region into a huge television audience.

Since the launch of Satellite Television Asia Region Ltd., or STAR-TV, in August 1991 amid much skepticism from the television industry, millions of Asians can now watch Cable News Network, American soap operas, and international sports via satellite dishes sprouting up in well-off urban neighborhoods and scruffy villages.

STAR - developed and bankrolled by the family of Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka-shing - reaches 11 million households in 38 countries stretching from Japan to the Middle East with five, 24-hour, ``free-to-air'' channels; they include Prime Sports, Music Television Asia or Asian MTV, and the BBC World Service. The most startling growth has come in India, where the number of households able to receive STAR-TV has tripled since 1992 to 3.3 million.

The satellite television revolution in Asia has become the dream of pan-Asian advertisers hoping to reach millions of affluent Asian consumers bored with dreary state-run television and anxious to experience the outside world. After two decades of strong economic growth and rapidly rising incomes, Asia will boast 60 percent of the world's population in the next decade and a large and growing middle class.

Challenging STAR-TV's near monopoly is a partnership of five companies, dubbed the ``Gang of Five,'' whose alliance will provide greater access to the Asian market than each currently can claim. Among the five are the parent companies of CNN and Home Box Office.

But the loosening of government controls over broadcasting has unnerved many Asian regimes - which for years have controlled what their citizens see and hear on television - and triggered a new debate over the mass media and free expression.

Media mogul Rupert Murdoch's purchase of controlling interest in STAR-TV in July brought a hail of condemnation of the Western invasion of Asian airwaves and calls to protect local culture.

``My children are mesmerized by this MTV,'' says Premlata Mathur, an Indian housewife and mother of three daughters, two of them teenagers. ``I know that watching all this TV does them no good. But I've given up trying to turn it off.''

Western analysts view the outrage as a thinly veiled attempt to maintain political and economic control over television and advertising revenues.

``Why has Mr. Rupert Murdoch bought a 64-percent stake of STAR-TV for $500 million? If he is not going to control news that we are going to receive, then what is it?'' blustered Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, a frequent critic of the Western media.

Although Thailand, the Philippines, and Indonesia are moving to deregulate broadcasting, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam continue to ban private ownership of satellite dishes. India is trying to impose restrictions on television operators showing Western films and commercials deemed indecent.

``Asian leaders have begun to point out that the increased activities of Western nations' news media in creating instability and sowing animosity, not only in a single Asian country but in the region, is to accomplish their main neo-colonialist objective of economic interference,'' said a commentary on Radio Burma.

``These governments treat us like the warning on the cigarette package: dangerous to their health,'' says Maurice Smyth, an official with STAR-TV in Hong Kong.

China's recent attack on the spread of satellite dishes is widely seen as a rebuke to Murdoch, who hopes to target the fast-growing Chinese market with his new investment. It is only one of a host of new problems at STAR-TV, which has undergone the turmoil of a management shake-up: It now confronts difficulties starting up a new pay-TV service in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the region; deteriorating relations with the British Broadcasting Corp., a popular programmer; and the loss of some of its satellite capacity.

To attract advertisers and make money in Asia, STAR-TV will have to reassure Asian governments, especially the Chinese. According to STAR-TV research based on Chinese government statistics, China has 4.8 million of the total 11.3 million Asian households receiving the broadcasts.

Resurrecting the old Maoist admonition against ``spiritual pollution,'' Beijing is expected to try to enforce its ban on individual dish ownership by charging hefty fees for licensing satellite receivers.

Still, many Western observers and Chinese technicians question whether the ban can be effectively enforced against the almost 40,000 receiving stations which People's Daily estimates have been installed in the country. Since STAR-TV and China's state-run CCTV channel beam from the same satellite, viewers can aim their dishes, and with some technical adjustments, get the full range of programming from the satellite.

In addition, China faces onslaughts from outside its borders other than STAR-TV; these include CNN's expansion into Hong Kong and reported plans to start a Chinese language service, Taiwan's approval of independent television stations that can beam to China, and the Hong Kong government's plan to open up its monopolized market to international broadcasters and become a media hub.

At a shop of the state-run Beijing Television Equipment Factory, a sales clerk reports that some work units still buy the satellite dishes, but since the switch in government policy, individual sales have slackened.

Still, she is reassured that the government will have a hard time pulling the plug. ``We have heard there are restrictions, but we don't know the details or how the regulations will be enforced,'' she says.

``But don't worry. We can sell one to you and help you install it. If you fix it properly, nobody will be able to interfere. The government has no way to control this.''

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