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Boom in Chinese TV Has Firms Dialing for Dollars

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the cluttered Alhambra offices of the Jade Channel, banks of television screens, editing equipment and studio lights seemed to buoy Philip Tam’s spirits.

“The Chinese niche market is there,” Tam, a senior vice president, said enthusiastically of the Chinese-language television station. “All these statistics from the Census Bureau tell me they’re able to support the survival of a station like us.”

Tam had reason to be upbeat. For years, the Jade Channel--a mixture of programs from Hong Kong and local news shows in the Cantonese dialect--was virtually unknown, available only to a few thousand cable television subscribers in the West San Gabriel Valley who were willing to pay an extra $17.95 a month.

But as Asian immigration began to have a profound impact on the San Gabriel Valley, cable companies from Arcadia to Diamond Bar have become wary of losing business. In recent months, they have moved quickly to add Chinese stations like Jade, at no added cost to the subscriber.

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Three companies--Alhambra-based Cencom Cable Television, Arcadia/Sierra Madre Cablevision and United Artists Cable Corp. in the City of Industry--each have two Chinese channels. Cencom, whose franchise includes the heavily Asian cities of Monterey Park, Rosemead and San Gabriel, uses a third channel primarily for Chinese shows.

Altogether, an estimated 100,000 people now watch the Jade Channel, Tam said, compared to 4,000 viewers when it was a premium channel.

“We couldn’t meet our corporate strategic goals if we didn’t take this approach,” said Janet Spatz, general manager of Jones Intercable, which on Aug. 26 began offering Jade to subscribers in the East San Gabriel Valley areas of Diamond Bar and Rowland Heights. Spatz predicted that as a result of adding Jade, at least 300 new Chinese customers will sign up with the cable company.

“This is the only way I am going to increase my bottom line, the only way to attract subscribers,” Spatz said. “Overall, we reach 53% of our population. In the Asian community, it’s probably half of that.”

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Experts say the cable industry’s interest in “mainstreaming” Chinese programs is natural, and perhaps overdue, given the success of Spanish-language and African-American channels in attracting audiences who otherwise would not subscribe to cable.

“The introduction of Chinese television on cable systems is a relatively new phenomenon compared to other minority cable interests,” said USC Professor Sherrie Mazingo, who chairs the university’s broadcast journalism department and has written extensively about ethnic television programming. “This is a late entry for the Chinese but it was bound to happen.”

To be sure, Chinese shows have been on the air for years, most notably on the multi-ethnic Los Angeles station, KSCI-Channel 18. But only recently has a proliferation of Chinese-owned production companies emerged to meet a growing demand for more programming.

Most of Southern California’s dozen or so Chinese television programmers are too small to occupy an entire channel. Instead, they purchase time--in 30-minute or hour blocks--from KSCI-Channel 18 and cable companies with “lease-access channels.”

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In contrast, the Jade Channel provides 12 hours of drama, variety shows and news each day. It is run by a giant in the Chinese television industry, Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB), Hong Kong’s largest television network and video producer.

But Jade is not the only Chinese cable network, nor is it the most aggressive one. While Jade has limited its expansion to the San Gabriel Valley, North America Television Corp., an 18-month-old Chinese-language station in South El Monte, has been courting cable companies across the United States--even in areas with smaller Chinese-speaking populations.

“Maybe someday we’ll be a Chinese CNN,” said Eddie Wang, the station’s general manager. “If some day Coca-Cola or McDonald’s wants to come to the Asian market, they’ll think of NATV, which is the most exposed.”

NATV is already on cable in New York, Dallas, Oakland and Seattle as well as in Southern California. A number of other companies are considering adding the channel, which offers a six-hour block of news, variety shows and movies, mostly in the Mandarin dialect.

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Most of NATV’s programs are from Taiwan, Hong Kong and China, while some--including local news, talk shows, and even a weekly dating game for Chinese-Americans--are produced in its own studios.

The station also leases time on its channel to smaller Chinese programmers and one Korean programmer, some of whom also buy time on other stations. Monterey Park’s China TV, for example, airs a Sunday evening business talk show on Jade, a weekday morning news show on KSCI-Channel 18, and an evening travel show on Cencom’s lease-access channel.

To remain competitive, NATV provides its programs free to all cable systems, except one in New York City that offers NATV as part of a $12 premium channel.

Wang said that not charging for its programs gives the younger company an edge over Jade, which charges companies about 5 cents per subscriber.

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But Tam of the Jade Channel said his company has no intention of following in its rival’s footsteps. “We’re not going to be like another HBO,” he said. “NATV’s vision is they want to be HBO a la Chinese. We’re not as ambitious as that.”

The Jade Channel has reason to be conservative about expansion. Most Jade dramas also are available on videotapes produced by TVB and rented in Southern California’s many Chinese video outlets. So the company must make sure any cable venture would not cut into its video rental business.

Also, it is more difficult for cable systems to offer the Jade Channel because it is not broadcast via satellite. Instead, the company must provide each cable company with videotapes to be played each day.

To receive NATV, on the other hand, cable companies only need a satellite dish. Likewise, individual viewers can watch NATV without subscribing to cable, simply by purchasing a special NATV satellite dish for $300-$500.

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Altogether, Wang said, 200,000 cable subscribers and satellite users watch NATV, about twice the number of Jade Channel viewers.

NATV has sunk several million dollars into its cable expansion. The Jade Channel has spent $400,000. To recoup the costs, both will rely primarily on revenue from commercials. That may be hard to do in areas with smaller, less concentrated Chinese populations than in places like Monterey Park and the West San Gabriel Valley.

So far, NATV has not been able to sell advertising on its channel in Seattle, where only about 1,000 of 10,000 cable subscribers in the downtown area are Chinese. Instead, the Seattle NATV channel airs commercials for businesses in Monterey Park and Alhambra.

Another obstacle is that Chinese programmers must compete with other ethnic groups for channel space. Some cable companies do not want to devote more than one channel to ethnic programming, and shy away from channels that are exclusively Chinese.

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“In Cerritos, they’re not interested because they think the Korean population is larger,” Tam said. “In Glendale, they told me if they have to give a channel to an ethnic group, they’d give it to Armenian. Ethnic is ethnic. You can’t ask someone who is not Chinese to watch you.”


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