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Legal obstacles and cultural differences have not deterred a U.S. infomercial company from enticing viewers in the fast-growing Asian TV market to shop 'til they drop.

Quantum International, London, the international operation of Philadelphia-based National Media Corp., is attracted to this market because of its rising number of credit cards, telephone networks and homes with two TV sets.

Quantum International entered Asia last year when it sold its Sell-A-Vision package of programs to SBC Channels 5 and 8 in Singapore.

This July, the company formed Quantum Asia, Tokyo, in a joint venture with Japanese media giant Mitsui & Co. to distribute infomercials throughout Asia.

Quantum Asia is supplying another set of infomercial programming, called the Quantum Channel, to 24 local Japanese TV stations reaching 44 million homes. It plans to expand into Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

"We expect to launch in one of these countries before Christmas," said Martin Purcell, Quantum International's VP-market development and coordination.

Quantum, which claims the Asian operation is already profitable, is tapping the growing number of middle-class Asians.

"Infomercials work in Asia because, like the rest of the world, people like to watch TV and they like to shop. Also, some of our infomercial programs are more entertaining than some of the local programming," Mr. Purcell said. "And from the customers' point of view, it gives them a chance to purchase products that are not available locally."

Quantum uses a celebrity to introduce an infomercial in each local language. In Japan, the presenter is Tomoko Nagano. The actual infomercials are produced in the U.S. and Europe and then dubbed. There are no immediate plans to produce infomercials locally.

Partner Mitsui uses its extensive local knowledge and connections to negotiate airtime with broadcasters, usually for one hour a day. Mitsui also helps Quantum negotiate a minefield of legal barriers in a still developing territory. "Mitsui knows how to achieve things in Asia. Otherwise, it would have taken us much longer to get there," Mr. Purcell said.

"We also pay the broadcasters for the privilege of using their airtime; it's therefore a win-win situation for them," he said.

Quantum trains personnel to answer phones and take orders.

But electronic retail of any kind needs an excellent communications network. In Asia, the sophistication of telephone networks, postal services and broadcast distribution varies from country to country.

While TV, telephones and excellent mail service are widely available in Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore, that isn't the case in the Philippines and China.

Experts estimate that between 1% and 5% of Indian households have telephones. With a population of 900 million, that means at least 9 million consumers in the country's estimated 65 million homes can order infomercial goods by phone.

India also is estimated to have at least 1 million credit-card users. But although the postal service can be bureaucratic, it is possible to deliver ordered goods within 24 hours in some areas.

Quantum estimates that about 70% of orders coming from Singapore are charged to credit cards. And when programs begin airing in Malaysia, Quantum estimates 35% of those orders will be charged. Quantum requires checks to clear before it delivers any goods. That policy slows business in China, where credit card systems are virtually non-existent and the mail system is poor.

The hours infomercials air tend to dictate the type of consumers who watch. A 2 a.m.-to-3 a.m. or 5 a.m.-to-6 a.m. timeslot attracts night-shift workers who have just returned from work. An 11 a.m.-to-noon timeslot attracts family audiences.

Most of the TV channels are government-owned, which tends to limit the amount of airtime available for infomercials. But whether the station is state-run or privately owned, strict broadcast censorship laws also restrain business.

The master tapes Quantum supplies to TV stations are edited for "improper" dress or nudity. Product claims are closely monitored.

Tough product legislation limits what Quantum can sell. Packages must list all ingredients and state other countries in which the contents are available. The supplier must also be able to document these claims; and all instructions must be translated in every language officially recognized by the country's laws.

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