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Free Cable TV Decoders Attract Subscribers

The State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (SARFT) published a timetable last June, hoping for at least 30 million digital cable TV subscribers by the end of 2005. It also planned to convert all municipalities, cities in the east and most provincial capitals in the central and western regions to digital broadcasting by that time.

But the situation is not developing as the administration anticipated.

"The situation has been changing rapidly over the past year, so we have to adjust the timetable and will release a new one soon," said an official surnamed Liu.

Many cities have found it difficult to attract subscribers, with the number reaching just 20,000 in cities such as Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing.

"The problem lies in the digital cable providers of these cities, who were trying to promote digital cable TV in China in the same way it is done in other countries. But this does not conform with China's reality," said Wang Xiaojie, a senior SARFT official.

In most places, digital cable providers attract subscribers by offering programming that differs from that offered by free channels. Subscribers have to pay around 1,000 yuan (US$120) to buy a special decoder in order to watch the programs on a normal television.

"But the reality in China is that people are accustomed to enjoying free television, and Chinese digital cable providers are forbidden to broadcast pornography like some foreign digital cable operators do to attract subscribers," Wang said.

The official cited Foshan, in south China's Guangdong Province, as an example.

Foshan started promoting digital cable three years ago, with overseas TV programs being the major attraction. Only 6,000 subscribers signed up in the city.

"When the digital cable provider in Foshan finally shut down the service because no more users were subscribing, only one person called asking why. The rest had either already stopped subscribing, or did not even care," Wang said.

To encourage more people to opt for digital TV, the city has decided to give subscribers free decoders.

"Hundreds of people line up every day to get the free decoder in Foshan, and the number of digital cable users has at least quadrupled," she said.

The official stated that Beijing, Taiyuan (Shanxi Province), and Dalian (Liaoning Province) will also adopt this method in the near future.

In a related development, SARFT has recently issued digital TV licenses to four companies to break China Central Television's monopoly on digital television.

(China Daily August 16, 2004)

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