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Broadcast Satellites and Television for Asia: Global Actors on a Continental Stage

The globalization of the communication industries is sometimes said to lead to developing countries either being excluded from the information age or converted into markets for global products. By the mid-1990s several satellites were broadcasting a wide range of transnational television channels across Asia. While early global/regional satellites and their television channels were seen as instruments of Western imperialism, they were soon followed by satellites launched by and/or channels targeted at national, subnational and diasporic markets across the continent. Using secondary data from industry sources, this paper surveys and classifies the satellites and their channels operating East and South Asia in the early to mid-1990s. It seeks to demonstrate that a media industries approach may be more productive than political economy and cultural studies ones in analyzing the complex relationships among the participants in the Asian television market.

Over the decade of the 1990s Asian skies became increasingly crowded with satellites beaming an array of commercial television channels transnationally. While early global/regional channels such as CNN and StarTV might have been seen as instruments of Western media imperialism, they have been followed by channels partially created within and directed at national markets such as Taiwan and India, and subnational ethnic-language channels targeted at diasporic groups across the continent. Some Asian governments have even taken to beaming their domestic quasi-commercial channels via satellite, intentionally directed towards other countries in their region. Further, transnational satellite channels have specialized into business, entertainment, movie, news, educational, children's, and women's channels among others. This paper will survey the transnational satellite television channels in East and South Asia in the early to mid-1990s and analyze their growth in the context of the political economy and cultural industries of the region.

Setting the stage
Contrary to the expectations of their early proponents, social effects, political economy and cultural studies approaches appear to be converging through an increasing emphasis on producers, regulators and consumers as mutually active participants in the social process of the media, both nationally and globally. Contemporary cultural studies theorists would argue that cultural production, while controlled and manipulated by societal elite, is not deterministic but even invites oppositional readings. Similarly, later social effects approaches temper ideas of powerful media effects with recognition that the media serves to reinforce existing attitudes and behaviors through personal decodings of their message, even when the range of meanings possible are limited. The political economy approach has also been increasingly cognizant of the active role of individuals and groups within the power structures in the media institution, industry, government and wider society. The criticisms of each school of thought might well be answered by another, because they analyze different facets of the same media phenomenon and are able to compensate for excesses or loopholes of the other.

In light of the unprecedented globalization of television via satellite and cable, Comor (1994) makes a case for the micro-level analysis of political economy of communications complementing the macro-level concerns of international political economy in what he terms a "global political economy of communication" approach. A political economy of communication approach, which investigates the power relationships between audiences, producers and distributors all the way from the local level of analysis to the global, is something he deems invaluable for understanding the complex processes of globalization. In his call for renewal of the political economy paradigm, Mosco (1996) surveys the extensive contributions of its exponents historically and internationally, and reminds us of its affinity with cultural studies against positivism. Though cognizant of the challenges of new arenas such as links between production and reception, structural changes in communications industries, and relationships between private and public media, he takes a rather conservative stance that analysis of communications must be located within the wider social, economic and political totality.

Signaling the need to redefine cultural imperialism concerns, McAnany and Wilkinson (1992) advocated more emphasis in media research on the economics of cultural production in particular national, inter- national or inter-corporate contexts. Taking up that theme, Sinclair (1994) argued that in a post-Marxist, postmodern age the search for a meta-theory of mass communication might be misplaced. Instead media analysts would find it more fruitful to theorize at mid-range levels such as the structure of the media industry or to adopt a "cultural industries" approach. As a framework for analysis of the media industry and its constituent corporations such as the present research intends, Wilson (1988) suggested earlier six relevant aspects: ownership, production, technology, distribution, consumption and the role of the state. A number of these are particularly relevant for analysis in the case of transnational television via satellite in Asia, and were incorporated in the wider research on which this paper is based.

Satellite platforms
Ever since Asiasat1 helped StarTV pioneer transnational television broadcasting in Asia, several more satellites have entered the region with ambitions to tap into this fast-growing market. But there have long been publicly owned national and inter-government satellites in operation in Asia, well before Asiasat1, largely for telecommunications and domestic broadcasting in aid of economic development. There have been numerous satellites operating in the region before and since which provide solely telephony, data communications, navigation, geographic survey, meteorology and other such services. Given its purpose, this paper will survey only those satellite platforms utilized by television channels which cover Asia, and to classify them in terms of their ownership and coverage.

Global-multinational satellites
Figure 1: Major global-multinational satellites and their television channels

Satellite systems have historically been the province of inter-governmental organizations such as the capitalist-dominated Intelsat and the communist-dominated Intersputnik, representing the two sides in this surrogate arena of the Cold War. Both have since had to face up to the challenges of the market to their duopoly and are now just two competitors among many in the new global market for satellite systems. Furthermore, Intelsat and Intersputnik have been co-opted by Western and Asian corporations alike seeking fast-track entry into the lucrative businesses of commercial satellite manufacture, ownership, launching, leasing and broadcasting.

Intelsat This consortium of 133 nation-states has 22 powerful satellites globally; 12 of them have large footprints in the Indian Ocean and Asia-Pacific region, carrying such channels as Nippon TV, Deutche Welle TV, ESPN, RFO Tahiti, Channel 7 Thailand, PTS Taiwan, Canal France, Turner, all Australian networks and TVNZ. Faced with commercial competition, Intelsat has begun replacing its aging satellites with Intelsat 7-series and Intelsat 8-series satellites, positioned over the Pacific Ocean. In a break from tradition, Intelsat chose to purchase 50 percent of ChinaSat 5, owned and operated by China, while the Chinese have purchased 45.0-49.9 percent of Intelsat 805, launched in June 1998, covering the Asian landmass (Via Satellite 1994b).

PanAmSat A Latin American commercial rival to Intelsat, PanAmSat has two satellites in the region giving it a global network. Its Pas-2 and Pas-4 beam such channels into Asia as ABN, Disney, NHK International (Japan), CCTV (China), Sony, ABS-CBN, TNT, and Doordarshan International (India). The newer Pas-4 satellite has trans-Indian Ocean coverage, and carries further channels on its specific African and European beams. PanAmSat benefited from the shock failure of the Apstar2 launch when a number of the latter's clients opted to migrate to Pas-4, which has also attracted Indian channels including Doordarshan (Asia Pacific Television: Cable and Satellite 1995:141).

Intersputnik Another international satellite consortium to rival Intelsat since 1971, it comprised the former USSR and its allies in Europe and Asia. Operated by the Russian Ministry of Postal Services and Telecommunications and under the system designation of Stationar, it has a range of ten Gorizont, Ekran and Raguda satellites covering the Asia region. For the Asia region it has plans to launch eight Express series satellites with 10 C-band and 2 Ku-band transponders which will provide steerable spot beams as well as global beams (Cooperman 1995).

Rimsat As a sign of the post-Cold War times the U.S.-owned Rimsat organization operates two Russian-built satellites. One is an aging Gorizont, incidentally used by one of the Indian commercial television channels. The other is a newer Rimsat1 carrying seven transponders and covering a vast area from above the Pacific Ocean, stretching from Alaska in the east, Russia in the north, India in the west and Antartica in the south. It has plans to deploy a fleet of new Express satellites built and launched in Russia using orbital slots of Tongasat (Via Satellite 1994b) the government leasing agency for the seven slots Tonga filed with ITU.

Regional-commercial satellites
There has been an increasing number of broadcast satellites owned and utilized by commercial interests from within Asia, in other words domestic and regional corporations. However, the technology for the manufacture of these satellites and (with the possible exceptions of China and India) for the launching of them remains in the hands of multinational corporations or governments of the developed world. The pioneer satellite operator was Asiasat, which established the transnational television market and set the trend for the regional and global, public and commercial satellites to follow in the region.

Figure 2: Major regional-commercial satellites and their television channels

Asiasat The Asiasat1 satellite on which StarTV began was previously the Hughes Westar VI which failed to achieve its geostationary orbit, was retrieved by the US Challenger space shuttle, refurbished and then sold for US$130 million to a consortium of Hong Kong's Hutchinson Telecommunications, the UK's Cable & Wireless, and the Beijing-government controlled China International Trust and Investment Corporation (CITIC). Asiasat1 was launched successfully and economically in April 1990 atop one of China's Long March III rockets. It was positioned at an equatorial orbit of 105.5E or slightly east of Singapore, a slot assigned by the ITU to China, for use as a commercial broadcast satellite in the Asia region (Asia Magazine 1990). About 60 percent of the transponder capacity of Asiasat1 was utilized for television, mostly transnational, compared with 11 percent on the inter- government Intelsat satellites. Hutchinson Telecommunications itself took control of a dozen of transponders on it for the purpose of running a pan-Asian television service. Most of the remaining transponders were leased by Bangladesh, Myanmar, Mongolia, Nepal, and Pakistan (countries which could not have afforded a satellite of their own) as well as China.

Asiasat had anticipated their transponders would be utilized for telephony, data transmission and domestic public television as is usual with developing countries, but the trend towards commercial satellite television in Asia followed closely that of Europe and North America instead. The rapid transponder take-up rate for Asiasat1 gave its owners confidence to begin planning as early as 1992 for Asiasat2. Despite using identical Long March rockets which had exploded while launching two other satellites, the technologically more advanced Asiasat2 was launched successfully in November 1995 (Television Asia 1996). With a larger footprint than Asiasat1, it covers much of Central Asia and Russia in the north, stretching to Australia in the south, Japan in the east, and East Africa and Turkey in the west. StarTV signed a US$200 million contract for exclusive access to 20 transponders across both Asiasats1 and 2 over 12 years (Asia Pacific Television: Cable and Satellite 1995:137) thereby demonstrating its commitment to a long-term presence in the Asian television market. Plans were soon made for Asiasat3 and Asiasat4 to be launched in the late 1990s, despite concerns in the industry about a glut of transponder capacity with rival firms and consortia having launched satellite platforms or planning to. Asiasat 3, launched in December 1997, failed to reach its intended orbit; its replacement, Asiasat 3A, is scheduled for launch in the first quarter of 1999.

Apstar A close rival of Asiasat is another China-funded company called APT Satellite Co., a consortium mainly owned by three Beijing government agencies: the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, China Aerospace Industry Corporation and a military science commission (Walsh 1994) as well as minority Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macao investors. Apstar planned for its satellites to carry a mix of transnational and domestic (largely Hong Kong, Taiwanese and Chinese) channels. CNN, Discovery, ESPN, HBO and TNT (the proverbial "Gang of Five") as well as other major transnational broadcasters migrated from other satellite platforms to its Apstar1 satellite in 1994. TVBI, CETV and several Chinese domestic channels lease transponders on this first satellite (Asia Pacific Television: Cable and Satellite 1995:133). A group of seven international broadcasters, including some of the "Gang of Five" plus Viacom Inc., Paramount Communications Inc. and Hong Kong's TVB signed an agreement to lease a further 16 transponders on their second satellite Apstar2, which exploded on launching in January 1995. All this competition to StarTV was postponed briefly until the replacement satellite Apstar 2R was launched in October 1997. Though its 16 Ku-band transponders are focused on Greater China, its 28 C-band transponders have a footprint covering most of Europe and Africa, and all of Asia including the Middle East and Australia. Meanwhile Apstar1A was launched as a back-up for Apstar1 in July 1996 to carry television and other telecommunications across Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia as well as South Asia, the last of these areas not reachable by Apstar1.

ThaiCom The three ThaiCom satellites launched between 1993 and 1996 are owned by the giant Shinawatra Group of Thailand. Though Thaicom1 and 2 provide coverage Thailand and the Asia Pacific and are utilized predominantly by domestic television of the IndoChinese sub-region, they were said to be considering accepting foreign channels. However Thaicom3 has 24 C-band transponders spanning Asia, Europe, Australia and Africa, and 14 Ku-band transponders with spot-beams aimed at Thailand and India (APT Satellite 1996).

Measat Malaysia, an early user of Intelsat and Palapa satellites, had its own Measat1 satellite built by Hughes and launched by Ariane in December 1995. Owned not by the Malaysian government but a private corporation it licensed, Binariang, it has footprints centered on Southeast Asia (Via Satellite 1995). In additional to telecommunications services it carries a 40-channel pay-TV service on which both transnational and domestic channels are available. A second satellite Measat2 launched in November 1996 has a larger footprint stretching from Australia to South Asia.

Domestic-public satellites
Under this section are classified government-owned satellite operators that aimed originally at their domestic markets, though they have progressively provided platforms for neighboring countries' public and commercial broadcasts, as well as transnational broadcasts. Furthermore, governments have been privatizing their satellite operators which have in turn entered into strategic alliances with multinational corporations, or been relegating national involvement in the satellite industry to joint-ventures of domestic and foreign firms, the former having close political connections. The line between domestic and transnational, public and commercial satellite is becoming increasingly difficult to draw, as this section will illustrate.

Figure 3: Major domestic-public satellites and their television channels

Palapa This Indonesian-owned satellite network originally intended and long used for domestic broadcasting has been a de facto transnational satellite platform. On its B2R satellite, which now carries the Indonesian national broadcaster TVRI, it also carried previously Malaysia, the Philippines and Papua New Guinea domestic public television. On its later satellite B2P it carried Indonesian commercial channels as well as transnational channels such as CNNI, ESPN, Discovery, HBO, ABN, Channel 9 Australia, TVBI and MTV Asia. The high-power commercial Palapa C1 and C2 were to supercede Palapa B2P in the late 1990s. Satelindo, the private operator of Indonesia's third-generation satellites, has opted for wider coverage and higher capacity for its Palapa C3 in order to meet commercial broadcaster demand (Via Satellite 1994b). Meanwhile Indosat, the government satellite telecommunications monopoly responsible for the earlier Palapas and Indonesia's international telephony, offered a quarter of its shares on the New York stock exchange in 1994 (Asiaweek 1994:46) thus not only privatizing but globalizing its ownership.

Chinasats The China Telecommunications and Broadcast Satellite Corporation (CTBSC), a commercial arm of the Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, has four satellites in place, Chinasats 1, 2, 3 and 5. The first three were built and launched by the Chinese between 1988 and 1990, and used primarily for voice, data and television transmission by its domestic television services (Cooperman 1995). Chinasat5 is China's first foreign-built satellite; it was the former Spacenet1, launched in 1984 and transferred to CTBSC ownership in late 1992. It is used by a number of national and provincial television stations for domestic broadcasting (Cable & Satellite Asia 1996). Chinastar1, the replacement for Chinasat5, built by Lockheed for launch in late 1997, has a footprint covering most of Asia. Meanwhile, joint-venture between Daimler-Benz Aerospace and China Aerospace, a privatized branch of the Ministry of Aerospace Industry, built the massive Sinosat1 with 24 C-band and 14 Ku-band transponders (Bulloch 1997). Although China has resorted to purchasing satellites from Western sources, it seems to insist on launches on one of its own Long March rockets, perhaps to support that industry or simply out of national pride.

Arabsat Towards West Asia, the Arab Satellite Communications Organization, a consortium founded by the Arab League in 1976, operated Arabsat 1C and ID utilized for both telephony and broadcasting by West Asian states. The 25 transponders on Arabsat 1C carried national Arab broadcasters as well as transnational television such as CNN, Canal France International (CFI) and Middle East Broadcasting Centre (MBC), a London-based, Arab-owned channel. Arab 1D carries regional commercial broadcasters such as Arab Radio and Television, Orbit Communications based in Rome, and Future Vision based in Lebanon (Via Satellite 1995c). The Arabsat2 series of satellites has footprints that cover most of Europe, West Asia and Central Africa (Via Satellite 1994c). [Editor�s note: The latest in the series, Arabsat 3A, was launched February 27, 1999.]

Changing the script
The ownership of transnational satellite television by global media corporations has been assumed by governments to imply their domination of any regional market they expand into. However, the impact of ownership is far more diffused, as the history of the medium in Asia illustrates. For a start, there seems to be no correlation between ownership of channels and their preference to be located on satellite platforms owned similarly, the only criterion seemingly being the markets reached by the latter's footprints. Global channels are beamed from domestic or regionally-owned satellite platforms, and domestic and regional channels from foreign-owned ones. Furthermore, transnational satellite channels are often carried by locally-owned cable operations in the various countries of Asia, ranging from neighborhood entrepreneurs to large firms with national political affiliations. A recent development has been the formation of formal strategic alliances and joint-ventures between transnational and domestic broadcasters, as well as with domestic program producers, cable networks and the like. The experience of StarTV and its followers into the Asian market demonstrates the principle that the greater the number of strategic alliances or joint-ventures formed, the more significant the impact of transnational television on the domestic broadcasters, advertisers, and audiences in that market, and vice-versa.

A symbiotic relationship might thus be said to exist between transnational satellite channels and domestic cable television networks despite their sometimes competing business agendas and unwillingness to acknowledge dependence on one another. Redistribution of television signals to cable networks was the first major use of satellites to be made by the television industry in the United States and continues to be a prime factor in the utilization of satellites in Asia. Extensive pirating of signals by individuals and illegal cable operators using satellite dish-antennae in countries such as Taiwan and India, has necessitated the scrambling of signals by transnational satellite broadcasters in Asia, and again involves utilizing technologies patented and so controlled by Western corporations, including News Corporation. Although technology for direct broadcast satellites (DBS) has been in existence for decades and in Asia for half a decade now, it has not gained widespread acceptance in the marketplace due to the higher cost of reception via dish-antennae for consumers. Some Asian countries such as Japan, Indonesia and Taiwan have adapted it for pay-TV purposes in their attempts to regulate access to transnational broadcasts as discussed above. But often government attempts to regulate the multitude of small domestic cable networks have only served to open the door to global MNCs to form multi-service operations (MSOs) in joint-ventures or strategic alliances with domestic or regional corporations, medium or large.

So the present reality in Asia is admittedly one of growing domination of cultural industries by commercial interests, often multinational, regional or even subnational, rather than by public interests which tend to be largely national in focus. Domestic commercial broadcasters, even public broadcasters, have had to mimic the transnational broadcasters in programming practices in order to compete for audiences and advertisers. There is no doubt that global media corporations are not driven by nationalistic agendas but by market imperatives which transcend borders. However, due to consumer demand for culturally contextualized programming, transnational broadcasters in Asia have become dependent on domestic production houses for some of their programming. Production operations for both domestic and transnational consumption tend to be geographically clustered as in the case of Bombay and Hong Kong to enjoy business synergies and economies. These industries are then protected by their national governments, less as developers of subregional or geo-linguistic cultural identities, but more as contributors to the domestic economies through jobs, technology, industry expertise and export income. Thus the increasing commercialization of television in Asia has resulted in convergence of interests between satellite platform providers, transnational and domestic television broadcasters, and between public and commercial sectors in related cultural industries.

Scene shifts
That the skies above Asia are certainly congested with satellites is amply illustrated by incidents of jockeying for orbital slots by rival platforms. As of 1996 there were 34 satellites serving Asia with an additional 21 satellites providing trans-Pacific and trans-Indian Ocean coverage. The growing number of satellite platforms in West and Central Asia, and Oceania often sharing footprints with North Africa, Europe and Australasia, are beyond the scope of this paper. With demand for transponder capacity outstripping supply in the Asian satellite market, early estimates suggested an increase in the number of transponders to as many as a thousand by the turn of the century, up from about three hundred in 1992. Yet the outlook for both pan-Asian and sub-regional satellite television industry is not altogether positive. Firstly, the concurrent deregulation and growth of domestic commercial television channels in Asia has spawned stiff competition among all broadcasters for the same or overlapping audiences. Secondly, after the massive expansion in the early to mid-1990s, the resultant glut of television supply has caused a slow-down of the hectic launching of satellite platforms. Finally the economic downturn in the region in the late 1990s is precipitating a dramatic fall in consumer demand for satellite/cable television and thus a shake-out of channels. Still, it may be too early yet to discern what this next stage in the development of the satellite television industry in Asia will shape up to be.

About Amos Owen Thomas

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