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Like many other telecasters in Asia, sports channel ESPN has learned the hard way to skirt the region's cultural, social, political and language barriers.

ESPN Asia currently transmits one pan-regional service in English and Mandarin targeted at 8 million satellite and cable Asian homes, in countries including China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and the Philippines. But most of the programming originates from the U.S. and the channel has been accused by viewers and local marketers of being more American than Asian.

So starting in May, ESPN's single satellite feed will be broken down into three subregional networks that broadcast programs customized for the continent's different audiences with another seven to follow at an unspecified date.

The first will be targeted at Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking residents of China, Taiwan and Hong Kong; the second will aim at English- and Hindi-speaking viewers in India; the third will be for the rest of Southeast Asia.

"Asia is very much different [culturally] from Latin America and Europe," where pan-regional broadcasting is successful, said Michael Fox, director, international advertising sales.

"Our mission in Asia is to add more programming with regional appeal as well as other languages," he said. "Eventually, we'll have seven [subregional] networks in Asia."

The network's new regional production facility in Singapore features technology that subdivides the satellite signal.

Thanks to ESPN Asia, which has been in the territory since May 1990, multinational marketers such as MasterCard International, Eastman Kodak Co. and Anheuser-Busch have successfully reached U.S. business travelers in Asia. But they have also caught the attention of a hitherto elusive group-upper-income Asian males.

The latter, however, are particular about the sports they enjoy. While volleyball is very popular in most Asian countries, Mr. Fox pointed out that the Chinese are fanatical about table tennis, the Thais are true badminton fans and Indians worship cricket. In fact, ESPN has spent $35 million to $40 million on the Indian rights to national and international cricket.

To effectively reach these different consumer groups,

ESPN's international division and advertisers agreed the programs had to be regionalized.

Initially, Mr. Fox plans to use one ad sales team to offer advertisers marketing packages that will capitalize on the new bouquet of subregional networks. Ad rates will be customized to the buy and will vary widely.

"At the moment, we offer pan-Asian packages and sell ad spots around programs that will eventually become part of the new subregional channels. As we grow, we shall have different sales groups specializing in the different smaller regions," he said.

Nike, computer giant Digital Equipment Corp., Business Week, Anheuser-Busch and fax machine manufacturer Kinpo Electronics, all with regional headquarters in Hong Kong, have already committed themselves to the new services.

On the value of the ad rates compared with those in the U.S., Mr. Fox said it is impossible "to compare apples and oranges."

Advertisers will be charged in U.S. dollars and since rates are negotiable now, the network doesn't have a standard rate card.

He said ESPN's advantage over local broadcasters is its experience in international sports programming in more than 100 countries. ESPN broadcasts to Latin America, the Middle East and Africa and to Europe via the Eurosport network.

"We shall bring Asian viewers localized sports as well as the international games that local broadcasters do not have," he said.

An example is coverage of the 1995 America's Cup yacht race, which will also be marketed to multinational advertisers.

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