New Asian satellite service right to go

Sue Green

THE Australian Broadcasting Corporation's new Asian satellite service will begin at 6 pm (Hongkong and Singapore time) on Wednesday, February 17.

The first programme to be beamed to Asia via leased space on Indonesia's Palapa B2P satellite will be a one-hour live broadcast of the official launch by the Australian Prime Minister, Mr Paul Keating.

The service, known as Australian Television International (ATVI), to screen eight hours a day from 4 pm will be the first regional competition to STAR TV and is claiming its regional news service as its centrepiece.

A one-hour news and current affairs show will screen from 9.30 pm until 10.30 pm nightly except Sundays, when it will be 30 minutes from 9.30 pm.

Although it is being touted by ABC management as a truly regional news service, only Australian journalists will be involved.

It will be compiled by ATV's Darwin-based team, headed by veteran ABC journalist Prakash Mirchandani, and the ABC's existing regional bureaus. Those bureaus will not be expanded.

The service, except the news, will be sponsored - a first for the ABC and the subject of criticism in Australia from those who see it as the ''thin end of the wedge'' for the advertisement and sponsorship-free domestic service.

But no sponsors have yet been named and it is unclear whether any have actually been signed.

ATVI's project manager, Mr Bruce Donald, is on a five-nation, three-week tour of Asia. He arrives in Singapore on Thursday and will be in Hongkong next week.

ATVI, funded until 1995 by an A$5.4 million (HK$27.5 million) Federal Government grant to be matched by the ABC, has released its programme guide for its first two weeks on air.

The choice of programmes is somewhat surprising, with a heavy reliance on programmes that are Australian in orientation and of questionable appeal to Asian audiences.

The first pre-recorded programme screened will be The Bush Tucker Man at 7 pm - the first in a series of eight on the work of Australian Army Major Les Hiddins, a bush survival expert.

The show focuses on bush food in the Australian outback - berries, roots, and grubs cooked on an open fire, for instance.

At 7.30 pm an Australian situation comedy, Trial By Marriage, will be shown followed by Quantum, the ABC's award-winning and highly regarded science and technology show.

Despite this Australian emphasis, ATVI said it would ''quickly establish its special character as a quality comprehensive service of relevance to the whole region''.

ATVI said its transponder also had the capacity for three audio services of CD sound quality.

One will carry Radio Australia, the ABC's international radio service presently available only on short wave and an Australian music channel is planned for the near future.

The dishes used to receive STAR TV do not work for the Palapa signal unless they are the moveable type. In Hongkong those wanting to receive the service by satellite will need to buy another dish.

ATVI is also hoping to have the service screened domestically and has been talking to Wharf Holdings with a view to selling it for pay-television.

In Singapore, where personal satellite dishes are not permitted, ATVI is hoping its service will be screened by one of the land-based licensees.