Legalization of satellite dishes in Taiwan is forcing domestic television stations to offer better news and entertainment programs or face losing their audiences.

Last year Taiwan ended nearly four decades of martial law, and political liberalization has been accompanied by rapid economic development. Now the opening of communications and access to the outside world is forcing a freer flow of information onto the tightly contolled media.One weapon the three state-owned Taiwan stations hope will recapture audiences lost to foreign broadcasts is increased domestic news coverage.

"The frontier is domestic news," said Taiwan Television Enterprise news chief Chang Hsiao-chen.

More time will be spent on Taiwan's economic and industrial changes and their local effects, he said.

The government formally approved satellite dishes for personal use in mid-November, but one official estimated there already are some 100,000 dishes - known here as "hsiao er duo" or "small ears" - feeding the island's estimated 2.6 million sets.

Taiwan long has manufactured $1,000 satellite dishes for export. But many also have found their way onto the roofs of private homes while authorities looked the other way.

Dish dealers saw sales leap following legalization. Sales at Tai Wei Electronic Co. Ltd. more than quadrupled in a week, said owner Jack Wey.

The dishes pick up foreign programs directly and scoop in American and Chinese programs by way of Japan.

Japan's NHK, for example, broadcasts ABC's morning news, CNN and ITN newscasts and daily doses of American professional football and basketball. NKH's news excerpts taken from mainland China broadcasts have given Taiwanese viewers their first glimpse of uncensored reports from across the strait.

Already the dishes have cut into viewing on the three government-owned television stations, which have relied on tight political control to maintain a stranglehold on broadcasting and information.

Station executives stressing national and local news now even cover the almost daily public street protests since the lifting of martial law.

TTV, run by the Taiwan provincial government, has added a two-hour morning news broadcast to augment its 30-minute noon, evening and late night transmissions, Chang said.

Before legalization of dishes, television executives - who helped block the move for nearly a year - argued that allowing foreign programing would be tantamount to a "cultural invasion." There are still fears of neighboring Japan's influence through satellite transmissions.

Official Taiwan frowns on Japanese culture. Movie theaters on the island Japan ruled from 1885 to 1945 may show only 10 Japanese movies a year, and the teaching of Japanese language is prohibited in Taiwan's universities.

But TTV Vice President Li Shen-wen said the foreign infusion would "stimulate local television to offer better programming" or risk losing its audience.