AFTER APSTAR, BROADCASTERS RETOOL EXPANSION IN ASIA

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HONG KONG-When the Apstar II satellite exploded at launch in China early this year, the expansion hopes of several satellite networks appeared to have blown up with it. But less than two months later, telecasters dismiss the explosion as a minor setback in their plans to expand coverage in Asia.

Networks with space on the ill-fated satellite included Turner Broadcasting System, the Discovery Channel, ESPN, Viacom International, Home Box Office and the Hong Kong-based TVB International. Apstar II would have given these broadcasters Asia-wide coverage and the use of digital compression technology to telecast multiple channels on one transponder.

The explosion led to a re-evaluation of plans to penetrate India, which would have been covered by Apstar II. But with alternative satellite space becoming available later this year, several channels remain on track for India in 1995.

Such expansion plans will at most be delayed by a few months, according to Andre Nair, managing director of Ogilvy Media Asia, a division of Ogilvy & Mather Asia Pacific. "Everyone has already found other options," he said, adding that among the most viable alternatives are space on PanAmSat 4 and Palapa C as well as the already available Apstar I.

As more TV channels are set to penetrate India and China, they are also expected to carry advertising to these lucrative markets. The Apstar II failure is only a "temporary setback" which won't affect advertising, Mr. Nair said.

TVB International went ahead and signed agreements with two Indian companies last month for programs to be produced in Hindi and Tamil but is now looking for a transponder that would cover India.

The network already has space on Apstar I, which covers China and Southeast Asia.

"The only area Apstar I does not cover is India," said Ruth Kan, marketing services division manager. "We were hoping to use Apstar II for the whole of Asia."

But she isn't worried about finding space on a new satellite.

"Before the end of the year, so many satellites are to be launched," she said.

TVB now expects to start up its entertainment channel in India in the last quarter of 1995.

Sports channel ESPN is due to start in India in the third quarter of the year, using space already booked on the PanAmSat 4 satellite to be launched in June.

The Discovery Channel Asia, now seen in 10 Asian countries, has plans for both China and India. The launch failure of Apstar II had very little effect on such plans, according to Kevin-john McIntyre, VP-general manager. "We have no pan-Asian ambitions," he said. Instead, the channel follows a country-by-country approach in agreement with local distributors.

Apstar II, with its large footprint and digital compression facilities, was seen as an alternative to the Asiasat satellites used almost exclusively by Star TV for its pan-Asian coverage.

"It would have been the first satellite other than Asiasat with a pan-Asian capability," Mr. McIntyre said.

Ironically, the one satellite launch which could be delayed by the Apstar II disaster is that of Asiasat II, which was to have been put into orbit this summer. Like Apstar II, it is to be launched by a Chinese-made Long March rocket. Since the cause of the explosion isn't yet known, the possibility of a fault in the rocket can't be ruled out.

Debris from the explosion has been flown to the U.S. to enable Hughes Corp., which manufactured Apstar II, to help the Chinese establish the explosion's cause.

"Based on their findings, we will determine if the explosion will affect our launch," said Bill Wade, deputy CEO, Asiasat.

Asiasat-part owned by Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., which also controls Star TV-is practically a Star TV monopoly. But Star TV itself has recently leased space on another satellite, Indonesia's Palapa B2P, to broadcast a 24-hour channel to Indonesia and the Philippines.

Meanwhile, Viacom and HBO are among those to have leased space on PanAmSat 4. In a way, the Apstar II explosion has turned out to be a boon for PanAmSat 4, Mr. Nair said, with TV networks scrambling to grab space on that satellite.

In January, when the satellite exploded, many TV stations had no back-up positions, since they planned to move from one satellite to the next.

"People had to scurry to find options," Mr. Nair said.

Mr. McIntyre predicts that interest in Asian satellites won't slow down as a result, but that channels will now formulate contingency plans.

Asian telecasters will likely adopt a multisatellite strategy like that already followed by the Discovery Channel Asia, which currently has space on three.

And, he said, while the commercial availability of satellites in Asia is still lower than that of Europe and North America, it is growing steadily.

"One rocket failure is not going to stop" satellite growth in Asia, Mr. McIntyre said.

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