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DTV Intrigue in China

Events that unfolded in China this week proved once again that the development of digital television is often more intriguing than what ends up on the tube.

First there were the reports that a new privately owned pay DTV network was being built. On Christmas Eve day, the South China Morning Post reported that the network, Shen-zhou Television, was awaiting approval of the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television, and that approval was "expected." As such, Shen-zhou TV would become that nation's second national network, in addition to the state-owned network, China Central Television.

The SARFT immediately responded that reports of the new network were "groundless," according to London-based newswire, AFX.

The government there is looking to take CCTV all-digital in five to 10 years, and is handing out free converter boxes to get viewers to switch from analog signals. But CCTV's digital feed is a pay service, and therefore not getting all that much interest from viewers, according to the newspaper.

On Christmas day, the Post again carried a story about the new network, revealing that it was a project of China's main phone company, China Communications. A company executive described the network as a telcoTV venture that would not rival CCTV, and according to government regulations, would neither carry news nor create content. SinoCast China IT Watch reported that Time Warner would contribute programming. (CCTV will launch HBO movies on its digital feed Jan. 1).

Another article that came out on Christmas day, this time, from the Associated Press Worldstream, said China's efforts to develop its own DTV transmission standard were on the skids. The intended deadline for doing so passed a year ago.

China resisted adopting ATSC, the U.S. standard, and/or Europe's DVB-T to avoid dependence on Western technology and manufacturers. Two major universities have been working on separate standards that are proprietary to China, but they resemble DBT-T and ATSC, according to sources familiar with the work.

The technology under development at Jiaotong University in Shanghai is advanced digital television broadcasting terrestrial, or ADTB-T. The competing technology at Tsinghua University in Beijing is digital multimedia broadcasting terrestrial, or DMB-T.

Two days after the article about the flagging DTV standard effort appeared, Fudan University in Shanghai announced that it had developed its own DTV chip, the Zhongshi No. 1. Several articles quoted Zhou Dian, president of the School of Microelectronics at Fudan as saying the chip was based on "China's DMB-T standard," which, of course, had not yet been adopted.

Two days after that, AFX carried a story quoting a professor at Tsinghua who said China would be adopting a standard based on an integration of the competing technologies, within the next couple of months.

Meanwhile, back in Beijing, the country's largest TV exporter reported the first fiscal loss in the history of its business - close to half a billion dollars. According to The New York Times, the company, Sichuan Changhong Electric, attributed the bulk of the loss to unpaid bills from Apex Digital based in Ontario, Calif. Apex owes Changhong $468 million, the exporter said.

Apex sells mostly lower-priced TVs and consumer electronics through discount chains like Wal-Mart. The U.S. Department of Commerce this year slapped a 25-percent tariff on incoming Chinese sets after it was determined they were being sold at below-market prices.

The chairman of Apex, David Ji, has been detained on fraud charges in China.