Optimism is starting to emerge among Asia's
direct-to-home platforms following trials and tribulations amid the region's
China Broadcasting Satellite TV (CBTV), the first DTH
platform in the People's Republic of China, is raising its hurdle in the coming year
by growing beyond its original target of 100,000 rural villages. It now aims to expand
into major urban markets during the third or fourth quarter of this year, according to
sources at MIH Holdings Ltd., which has managed some of the technical coordination
involved in launching the platform.
CBTV launched in December 1998 with an original order of
25,000 decoder boxes and a mandate to supply the service to subscribers free-of-charge.
But it will become a commercial enterprise when it reaches the major markets.
In October, CBTV moved beyond its original lineup of eight
channels from state-owned China Central Television (CCTV) to a lineup of 43 services.
Progress is also evident at Malaysia's Measat
Broadcast Network Systems, which owns and manages the Astro DTH platform. The sense of
optimism is particularly noteworthy given the severe difficulties Measat faced during the
Asian economic crises that are now just ending.
"We survived due to some very stringent measures,
which included the delay of capital raising and the reduction of our staff by 20
percent," Woo Siew Chuen, executive director of Measat's Multimedia Interactive
Technologies Sdn Bhd subsidiary, said in his speech at last month's CASBAA (Cable and
Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia) panregional conference in Hong Kong. He added
that Astro received "excellent support from our channel suppliers, who issued
moratoriums on payments."
Because Astro's contracts are written in U.S. dollars,
its costs effectively rose 50 percent after the Malaysian ringgit lost much of its value
against the greenback. Programming costs accounted for 40 percent of subscriber revenue,
compared with a pre-crisis 25 percent, Woo said.
But he does see a silver lining to the cloud. "The
competition [is] still reeling, and new entrants are unlikely, which gives us the
opportunity to become the dominant player," he added.
Astro had a subscriber base of 250,000 in early December,
he said, and it expected to fill a backlog of 50,000 orders by the end of last month. By
the end of January, Woo said, Astra should have 320,000 subscribers. Looking further out,
he forecast 606,000 subscribers one year from now.
In Thailand, cable-system and DTH operator United
Broadcasting Corp. sees DTH as its most important vehicle for growth, particularly because
the rural geography of the country doesn't make cable economically viable.
UBC CEO Sompan Charumilinda noted that one of the major
difficulties his company faces is government regulation that forces it to block all
advertising on satellite-delivered networks.
Progress was also forecast by Dicky Di Nata, president
director of Indonesian DTH platform Indovision. While Indovision's growth ground to a
halt when the "Asian flu" struck, Di Nata said he believes that the new, more
transparent government in Indonesia heralds a new dawn for DTH there.
In a strange, Wild West twist, the new government has
abolished its Ministry of Information, which was responsible for licensing media
properties. The government is now leaving players free to settle differences of opinion on
certain "limitations" and regulations.
While Di Nata gave no current figures on his own
platform's subscriber base, he said the country has some 350,000 households that
either have access to pay TV or multimedia services such as the Internet.
Janet Stilson contributed to this report.
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