IN Calcutta, the opening of a new disco is mobbed by hundreds of young Indian fans hoping to see the hosts of MTV Asia. In villages near Shanghai, Chinese farm workers sing karaoke in local bars after seeing it on satellite television from Hong Kong. And in Cowboy Maloney's Electric City in Jackson, Miss., a three-month supply of satellite television systems - offering 150 channels and captured by an 18-inch ``dish'' - sells out in a week. Technological advances have transformed satellite television from a luxury in a handful of countries to a cheap, reliable means of mass communications with massive cultural, economic, and political impact.
Since 1990, satellite television has spread to an estimated 200 million viewers in 39 countries in Asia and the Middle East, leading many authoritarian governments to try unsuccessfully to block the transmissions, usually by banning general use of receiving dishes.
The ability to reach billions of customers has led the world's largest media companies to begin battling for satellite space, mainly over Asia. A half-dozen new satellites are scheduled to be launched over the US and Asia this year. ``[Asia] clearly has the fastest growing economies in the world and there is a tremendous appetite for satellite communications,'' says Harry Thibedeau of the Satellite Broadcasting and Communications Association in Washington. Some countries are being accused of hoarding satellite positions over their territory, a right granted to them by a United Nations regulatory body.
``There clearly have been issues raised over the South Pacific regarding requests being put in [by some countries and companies] to hold onto a space when they weren't in a position to be reasonably used,'' Mr. Thibedeau says.
Asia's first satellite television system, STAR TV, was launched in 1990 by Hong Kong developer Li Ka-Shing. Rupert Murdoch purchased a controlling share of STAR in 1993. Using just one satellite, the company broadcasts various combinations of five free channels and an encrypted pay channel to 39 countries stretching from Japan to the Middle East.
The Hong Kong-based network estimates that its audience grew from 11 million to 42 million subscribers during a 10-month period last year and expects to have 400 million viewers by 1996.
STAR TV is facing a challenge from 16 mostly U S media companies - including HBO, CNN, ESPN, Discovery, and MTV Asia - to serve the viewing appetites of Asia's rapidly growing middle class. The group will begin broadcasting this fall with a satellite that covers a slightly smaller section of Asia.
``We have plans to launch an English-language and a [Chinese] Mandarin-language channel,'' says Caroline Vincent, a spokeswoman for MTV International, which broadcasts in 80 countries and has an estimated 250 million overseas viewers. ``The Asian market has enormous potential and we feel that the time is right to get out and operate on our own.''
STAR TV says it is unfazed by the United States group and is shifting its emphasis to more local language productions. The network plans to introduce pay-movie channels in Hindi, Mandarin, and Arabic over the next 18 months. It also recently signed long-term production agreements with two Hong Kong- and Taiwan-based companies and made deals to carry Chinese Soccer Federation games and Indian cricket games.
``The consumer demand is very clearly for programming in the regional language,'' says STAR TV spokesman Douglas Gautier. ``What the kids want is some access to Western music, but they also want their own artists in their own language.''
IN India, an estimated 7.2 million STAR TV viewers receive a steady diet of Donahue, Oprah, L.A. Law, Doogie Howser, Remington Steele, M*A*S*H, and four-year-old, subtitled episodes of American soap operas The Bold & The Beautiful and Santa Barbara.
``It's just been absolutely unbelievable because it's opened up whole new worlds for us,'' says Shobah Deh, an Indian author who has received offers to host an Indian version of a Donahue-style talk show on STAR TV. ``It has affected how we speak, the clothing we wear, and the food we eat.''
Mrs. Deh and others say Indians who rarely viewed television in the past now rush home from parties or change their daily schedules to not miss American soap operas.
Satellite dishes can be bought for roughly $1,000, but a dish is not always necessary. In urban Indian neigborhoods, mazes of haphazard cables run from the homes of entrepreneurs with satellite dishes. STAR TV, which receives most of its revenue from advertising, estimates that for every one legitimate viewer it has five illegitimate cable viewers.
But among some Indians the idea of a generation raised on STAR TV yearning to look, dress, and speak like young Californians is reviving long-held suspicions of Western colonialism.
``It [satellite television] says subliminally to Indians that Indian things are inferior and Western culture is better,'' Richard Crasta, an Indian author whose new book focuses on the effect of Western media on India. ``The old social values are breaking down. People have less and less time for each other.''
Mr. Crasta says Western television is ``diluting'' Indian culture. ``We've survived several cultural invasions in the past,'' Crasta says, ``but I'm not sure we will survive this one. Television is very seductive''
Citing similar fears, China, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam have all enacted laws regulating who can own satellite dishes, but the measures have been largely ineffective.
``We want to prevent undesirable materials from coming into Singapore - anything that has sex, pornography, or violence, or [anything] that would be harmful to our Asian harmony,'' says a Singapore Ministry of Information official, who asked for anonymity. ``We are a multiracial society and we place a lot of emphasis on racial harmony. Some materials if shown would just incite racial tension and riots.''
Last October, China announced the first of a series of regulations requiring dish-holders to register their dishes with the government. The regulations followed angry protests from the Chinese government when an unflattering documentary of Mao Zedong was aired on a BBC televison broadcast carried by on STAR TV. STAR TV stopped broadcasting the BBC to China this spring, ostensibly to create space for a pay-movie channel.
Some governments have also protested the sexual content of some broadcasts. CNN spokesman Steve Hayworth in Atlanta says the network has had more incidents of women on fashion shows being censored in Islamic countries than censoring of news coverage.
``In Pakistan, we're on the air 6 hours a day and the issues that come up the most are not political, they're cultural,'' he says.
CNN, which is broadcast in 142 countries and has slightly more subscribers outside the US than in the US, was cut off from Beijing hotels for several days surrounding the fifth anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
China observers say any attempts by the government to ban satellite television would be ineffective and possibly dangerous. STAR TV estimates that the number of Chinese households receiving its service rose by 533 percent from 4.8 million in February 1993 to 30.3 million in November 1993.
``Once you open the door you cannot close it,'' says Godwin Chu, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii who has studied the effect of television in China and Indonesia.
``Once you have seen a better world you want to improve your own way of life,'' he adds.
In the US, the long-awaited arrival of hundreds of TV channels to US homes is being ushered in by higher-power satellite broadcasting.
Unlike the six- to ten-foot satellite dishes that were introduced in the US in the early 1980s, the new, more powerful satellites now allow homes to receive 150 channels with an 18-inch dish. Two US companies began offering the service in five US test markets last month and will offer it nationwide starting this fall.