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Setbacks dampen growth spurt

SINGAPORE This high-tech island has faced a few hiccups, mostly caused by the economic slowdown, as it strives to become Asia's media and communications hub.

But the setbacks have been more than offset by gains, including the launch of new local and regional channels and recent decisions by U.S. players Hallmark, Carsey-Werner and Miramax to choose Singapore as their Southeast Asian headquarters.

Satcaster Japan Entertainment Television, which burst onto the scene with much fanfare two years ago, was the latest casualty of a shakeout among the region's broadcasters. After running up losses estimated at $40 million, JET shuttered June 1.

Some execs are convinced more cable and sat channels will go.

"There will be more victims," predicts James Marturano, HBO Asia senior VP for sales and marketing. "This is a very crowded market. It's a matter of having rational business plans and of watching costs."

"It will probably take three years before economies get back to where the big players are interested in introducing new services," says James Crowe, managing director of Asia Broadcast Center, one of Singapore's three satellite up-link facilities.

Seeing positive light

Others believe the worst is over. "Confidence has returned to the region. I think the market for program providers is finding its own equilibrium," says MTV Networks Asia president Frank Brown.

Tan Chek Ming, director of services development at Singapore's Economic Development Board, is bullish.

"Broadcasters that have established a presence in Singapore are committed to the Asia Pacific market for the long-term," Tan says. "Their initial goals have been to penetrate markets and to establish brand loyalty."

The EDB and a raft of concessions and incentives were instrumental in attracting Nickelodeon and Animal Planet last year, and Hallmark-the Kermit Channel earlier this year.

Tan estimates nearly 20 broadcasters are based in the republic, relaying some 50 program feeds to the region. However, Singapore is losing National Geographic Channel, which is decamping to Hong Kong to join sister company Star TV after News Corp. bought 50% of the broadcaster.

Pearson TV has closed its distribution office in Singapore, shifting Asian sales to its London headquarters while retaining its production base here.

New arrivals

More than compensating for this are new Asian outposts of Carsey-Werner Intl. and Miramax. Rajiv Dhawn, who was recruited to CWI from the Television Corp. of Singapore, says his presence enables the company to be more proactive in selling its productions and those from third parties such as Canada's Rogers Broadcasting.

"Clients can be serviced more easily and their problems, such as softening currencies, can be better understood," he says.

Miramax has hired Rowena Chiu to buy, develop and co-produce or co-finance pictures in the region. Chiu, whose resume includes stints with Hungry Tiger Prods., ICM in London and MTV Asia, is also scouting for TV and book projects.

Great expectations

In March, TCS launched Channel NewsAsia, aimed at businessmen and professionals. Despite a slow start, with average cumulative ratings at 5% and a reach of 11%, CNA aims to be the first local free-to-air channel to go regional within a year.

Assistant VP Jimmy Tan remains optimistic as campaigns to attract viewers are under way.

"We're still studying the markets," he says, referring to the countries to be targeted, "and we may have to customize our feeds."

STV12, the other terrestrial broadcaster, plans to start two new channels by the end of this year or early 2000. One will be partly subsidized by the government, catering to the island's ethnic Indian minority. The broadcaster is seeking sponsorship or revenue-sharing arrangements to fill the rest of the airtime, says Richard Tan, marketing communications VP.

The other will be a sports channel initially airing for four hours a day, increasing to six.

And the Singapore Broadcasting Authority's decision to adopt the European digital TV standard opens the way for more players to offer programs and services in the new format.

Handling everything OK

Generally, cable/satcasters have emerged through the recession in good shape. That's typified by MTV Asia's revenues, which shot up 50% last year, fueled by distribution growth that means its webs are available in 104 million homes.

"We expect double-digit growth this year" in ad revs, Brown says. "We're moving toward profitability very quickly."

At the end of last year, HBO Asia boasted 3.2 million subscribers and sister channel Cinemax had 2.1 million. This year, Marturano expects a 5% uptick for his channels, noting upturns in the Philippines, Thailand and Singapore, and "pent-up" demand in Malaysia, where DTH platform Astro had glitches with set-top boxes.

ESPN Star Sports managing director Sandy Brown says, "Our subscriber growth was muted last year by the economic crisis. Our projections are still somewhat modest. We're looking at 10%-20%, whereas we were getting 30% in previous years." The ESPN webs have 38.5 million subs and Star Sports channels have 39.2 million.

Discovery Asia senior VP and general manager Kevin-John McIntyre does not foresee a rapid takeoff for pay TV, despite improving economies, because many affils are battling to pay off loans and are focused on cost-cutting, not growth. McIntyre predicts Discovery will expand to 27 million homes this year, up from 23.4 million in 1998.

Making a dent

Sony's AXN Action TV has enjoyed healthy growth in Taiwan (4.6 million homes) and India (4.5 million), where it launched last October, and it now reaches 10.1 million homes in 15 countries.

Chief exec James Buklarewicz hopes to add another 2 million homes in India this year and to start syndicating AXN programming in South Korea, China and possibly Indonesia.

He's been buoyed by market research that shows the action-animation-sports channel's audiences aren't overwhelmingly male and working-class. Young women like Japanese animation, and 30% of viewers are from senior management and professional ranks.
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Title Annotation:cable and broadcast television in Singapore
Comment:DARK BEFORE B'CASTER DAWN.(cable and broadcast television in Singapore)
Geographic Code:9SING
Date:Jun 21, 1999
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