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Providing a Space Link to Homeland : Chinese-language satellite TV gets a good reception among immigrants in United States

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Joyce Wong, a computer programmer from Taiwan who lives near Chinatown, doesn’t mind when her family watches TV. In fact, she encourages it.

That’s because the Wongs watch the Chinese Communication Channel, a satellite service that offers 24-hour programming in Mandarin, the official language of China and Taiwan. Wong’s parents, who do not speak English, learned about the Unabomber scare that way. Her American-born toddlers hone their Chinese with a Taipei family sitcom. And Wong scans commercials to find out which Chinatown stores offer specials on rice and ginseng.

“It’s a good investment,” Wong said. “Ten years ago, when my parents moved here, they had nothing at all to watch. Now, we can’t live without it.”

The Wongs are among tens of thousands of Chinese immigrants who have jumped at the chance to get closer to their homelands via satellite TV. With a $500 decoder box and less than $20 in monthly fees, the Chinese diaspora throughout North America can keep in touch with steamy Hong Kong soap operas, Taiwanese pop stars and Mainland China financial news.

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With the high-tech revolution, any telecommunications company can buy the use of orbiting satellites and beam its signal back to Earth, and last year two Chinese firms did just that. The Chinese Communication Channel in Norwalk and the Jade Channel in Rosemead--which focuses on Hong Kong and the Cantonese language--plunged millions of dollars into satellite broadcasting. Each puts out a 24-hour mix of its own, including imported programming, and sells satellite dishes to help customers receive the signals.

Both firms see the move as a long-term investment to help them reach viewers outside traditional Chinese enclaves. About 250,000 people of Chinese ancestry live in Los Angeles County, and that fact has not escaped the TV companies or their advertisers.

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Pauline Shin, vice president of Dai Cheong Trading Co., a Lincoln Heights firm that imports thousands of food products from Asia, spends $6,000 a month advertising on the Jade Channel.

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When she heads home at night, Shin flips on the tube to relax. If it’s a weekend, she encourages her American-born children to tune in so they can practice their Mandarin and Cantonese.

One recent night, 13-year-old Vivian and her brother, Ronald, 10, picked out Chinese characters on the screen with their cousin Eleanor, 8.

“That says ‘big’ and ‘China,’ ” Eleanor said, pointing to individual characters.

“Not quite,” corrected Shin. “It says ‘Mainland’ and ‘China.’ ”

American corporations have also plugged in.

“We’re always looking for new and innovative ways to reach out to the consumer, and this is one,” said Lorain Wong, director of communications for AT&T; consumer services in Southern California, which advertises on both stations.

Experts say it is not surprising to see Chinese-language TV branching into satellite.

“Ethnic markets certainly are big,” says Tom Wolzien, a media analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York. “And satellite is much more efficient than cable for collecting niche markets, because it reaches the entire country.”

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The two Chinese services appeal to slightly different audiences. The Jade Channel is owned by a Hong Kong network giant called TVB, which is “the station from Hong Kong,” according to Whayu Lin, TVB’s director of marketing.

By contrast, the Chinese Communication Channel, owned by North American TV, is more oriented toward Taiwan. As an independent station, it can buy programming from anywhere it likes, while TVB almost exclusively airs programs from its mother channel in Hong Kong and a Taiwanese subsidiary.

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B ut the two firms have a lot in common. Each began with Chinese cable TV more than 10 years ago and maintains those stations in some heavily Chinese areas of Los Angeles. They added satellite service after realizing it was both impractical and expensive to negotiate separate arrangements with individual small cable carriers.

Each firm spends about $2 million to lease space on satellites and beam their signals back to North America. Since starting up, each has already expanded operations and now has 50 employees in Los Angeles County. Nationwide, TVB has almost 10,000 subscribers; North American TV has about 15,000.

Both stations contract with big U.S. networks for international and national news feeds, including daily segments from Bosnia and the Simpson trial. North American TV wades into U.S. issues too. It already has five hours of local programming, plus specials. During the Midwest floods in 1993, for instance, it produced and aired a fund-raiser that netted $120,750 for the victims.

But the bread and butter of these stations is Chinese-language programming. Variety shows command large audiences, as do programs about the lives of several generations living under one roof and trying to run a business.

One of North American TV’s most popular locally produced shows is an Asian-style “This Old House,” in which a feng shui master gives advice on the ancient Chinese art--which links the design and placement of buildings with the health and harmony of those living within. In three months, the show drew 5,000 letters from subscribers.

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TVB, by contrast, has only one hour of local programming, though it plans to add three more by year’s end. One recent day, employees edited a Chinese tabloid version of “60 Minutes” in which TVB news crews in Thailand had captured footage of young women from Mainland China working as prostitutes in fancy Bangkok hotels.

With the Pacific Rim booming, both firms see prosperity in their future.

“The Chinese market in the United States is growing fast,” Tam said. “Since many Chinese in the United States . . . retain their Chinese language, we feel there is a great void we can fill.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

HOW SATELLITE TV WORKS

* TV stations in Asia send their programs to a Transpacific satellite orbiting Earth.

* The Transpacific satellite receives it and transmits it back to a 25-foot-wide satellite dish in Los Angeles, which forwards it via fiber-optic cable to the studios of TVB and North American TV. At the studios, it is edited, mixed with local programming and assembled into 24-hour blocks.

* TVB and North American TV beam the 24-hour blocks of programming up to a North American satellite, where it is converted into frequencies accessible by small back-yard satellite dishes.

* The North American satellite sends the signal back to Earth, where subscribers with decoder boxes and small dishes can receive it and watch their favorite programs.

North American TV

Cost: About $500 for decoder and satellite dish plus $15 in monthly fees. For more information, call (213) 722-8889.

The Jade Channel/TVB

Cost: About $500 for decoder and satellite dish plus $18.88 in monthly fees. For more information, call (310) 802-8868.


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