State broadcaster tunes in to possibilities offered by pay TV
China Central Television will test the pay-television market by launching four or five channels in September.
The broadcast media has been abuzz with talks that up to six pay-television channels will be rolled out this year and that there could be 30 within two years.
Sources said the roll-out would probably include channels carrying films, sport, Chinese opera and situation comedies. Foreign programmes will not be included.
A CCTV official confirmed the September launch but could not confirm the number of channels or which cities would receive the signals.
Broadcast professionals said the launch was part of media reforms designed to encourage better programme production and to generate revenue from re-running archived films.
Since the separation of programme production and transmission, CCTV has tried to get a step ahead of competitors by launching pay channels.
Proponents of the scheme say pay television is necessary to reduce the reliance on advertisements, which could have a 'dumbing down' effect as well as giving advertisers too much power over programming.
But the content-driven aspect is only part of the rationale. A professor at Beijing's Broadcast Institute said the overall plan to integrate the new digital network technology using pay television as the spearhead was even more important.
Subscribers will have to buy a set-top box which will connect them to both pay programmes and the internet. In some US and European cable companies, more than half of the revenues come from IT services, he said.
'The debate on whether the Chinese audience, who are used to free-to-air programmes, will be willing to subscribe to pay TV will become less important if it is bundled with other services,' said the professor.
He said the cost and the technical requirements of the set-top boxes could be initial hurdles that would need to be overcome.
A set-top box costs more than 1,000 yuan (HK$940).
The price could come down to 800 yuan by next year, but this is still a considerable amount for many people.
The professor also said that once successfully accepted by the public, the proliferation of pay television channels could pose a challenge to government censors.