An early bath
Sports fans looking forward to live coverage of major sporting events on ESPN will be disappointed when the channel goes off the air at the end of the month.
ESPN Star Sports, the joint venture company that runs six different sports feeds in the region, has failed to reach an agreement with Hong Kong Cable Television for the renewal of Cable TV's licence, which expires on April 30.
Live coverage of games like tonight's Champions' League clash between Chelsea and Barcelona (ESPN, 2.30am) will be casualties when ESPN goes off-air, along with the Champions' League Cup Final, the UEFA Cup Final, the NBA Finals, the US Open Golf, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League.
English Premier League action on Cable Sports Channel is not affected.
The loss of ESPN from Cable TV is the latest round in the new competition in the pay television market, even before its competitors have been awarded licences now being considered by the Television and Entertainment Licensing Authority and due to be announced this summer.
ESPN is likely to find a new home later this year on one of the new platforms. As Star TV has a 50 per cent stake in ESPN Star Sports, it is most likely to reappear on the service to be operated jointly by Star and Cable & Wireless HKT, due to be launched at the end of the summer. But according to a spokesman at Star TV, no agreement has been finalised.
When the channel does return, it is not certain whether its programming will be available in both English and Chinese, given that the new pay TV platforms will be competing primarily for the Chinese audience. Star Sports has already angered English-speaking viewers by reducing its English coverage in favour of Mandarin, most notably of the new Formula One motor racing season.
Hong Kong Cable is trying to compensate for the loss of ESPN by beefing up its Sports 1 and 2 channels. Sports 2, which focuses on Italian soccer after 9pm, is to be expanded to a 24-hour sports channel, covering a broader range of sports, from Grand Slam tennis to adventure sports, and will replace ESPN on channel number seven. This channel will also feature a daily Sports News report, covering Hong Kong and international sport.
Sports 1 is to become a 24-hour soccer channel, covering the English Premier League and Italian Serie A, the English FA Cup final, and Euro 2000 in June and July.
A spokesperson said Cable would try to negotiate for rights to some of the sporting events unavailable after May. It would also offer more programming in Nicam to cater to both Chinese and English speaking audiences.
Cable TV, currently the leading Hong Kong sports programmer, faces tough competition from ESPN in bidding for exclusive rights to major sports events. It will no doubt rely on its trump card, the rights to the 2002 FIFA World Cup scooped last year, to win in the battle for subscribers.