Fri, Dec 03, 2004 - Page 15 News List

A clearer picture for digital TV watchers

By Gavin Phipps  /  STAFF REPORTER

PHOTO COURTESY OF DISCOVERY NETWORKS ASIA

The government's ongoing plan to digitize the nation's television by 2008 got a boost earlier this week, when CEOs of Taiwan's three largest broadband providers announced that they would work together to improve programming in Taiwan and speed up the digitization of Taiwan's television services.

The announcement that China Network Systems (CNS, 中嘉網路), Eastern Multimedia Co (EMC, 東森媒體科技) and Taiwan Broadband Communications (TBC, 台灣寬頻) will work closely, came at a gala cocktail party celebrating the launch of Discovery Network Asia's Discovery Science and Discover H&L channels.

"We, as providers, are each looking for a niche market but there's currently a limited number of channels we can offer," said CNS' Simon Lin (林中龍). "The best way to ensure that the time frame for digitization is met is for companies like ours to cooperate rather than compete against each other."

The inclusion of two new digital Discovery channels comes hot on the heels of the inclusion of BBC Prime, which became available on December 1; and several weeks before a new digital National Graphic Network channel is formally announced.

Even with the inception of these four new channels, digital providers in Taiwan are currently only able to provide viewers with an average of 30 channels, less than the 80 analog channels available nationwide. This lack of digital channels is, according to Albert Lin (林清修), president of Prosperity CATV (吉隆有線電視), one of the major obstacles to widespread acceptance and use of digital television in Taiwan.

"There are just too many [analog channels] in Taiwan that offer too much and [viewers] already have nearly everything they need," he said. "People's viewing habits are difficult to alter. If their favorite programs aren't available on digital then they certainly aren't going to want to change."

At present, 4.2 million households subscribe to analog cable television, but the number of digital subscribers is miniscule. The largest percentage of the digital market is currently divided between the five largest broadband companies, or "the Big 5."

CNS provides 28,000 households with digital programming, TBC feeds 12,000 homes and EMC supplies 20,000 homes. The nation's two other largest digital providers, Pacific Broadband (太平洋聯網科技) and Taiwan Infrastructure Network Provider (台灣礎網路), share an estimated 10,000 customers.

According to EMC Chairman Faizal Syed, one of the most significant disparities between Taiwan and other digitizing nation's is in its sports programming.

Whereas one soccer match can draw millions of viewers in Europe, Taiwan's relatively lackluster audiences has meant that companies have been reluctant to add sports channel packages to current program options.

"We are addressing national pastimes, but the situation in Taiwan is very different to that of Europe or India," Syed said.

While sports programming is not going to appear overnight, an industry insider says that one of the Big 5 broadband companies is currently in talks with leading European sports channels.

The public's reluctance to switch to digital has led to the broadband companies slashing subscription charges in recent months. Rock-bottom installation costs now average NT$500 and monthly fees from between NT$100 and NT$300.

Although some broadband providers remain optimistic regarding complete digitization within the next two to three years, others believe that cost incentives may not be enough to alter Taiwan's viewing habits.

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