IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

In world of pay-TV, sport's a different beast

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 9, 2013

BE CAREFUL what you wish for.

A cross-carriage rule that mandates a pay-TV provider to share exclusive content - if there's a request from subscribers of a rival operator - was supposed to kick off a better cable-TV viewing experience for consumers.

But recent events have made football fans confused and upset. They will now have to cough up a lot to enjoy their English Premier League (EPL) fix. This was after SingTel, which had acquired rights to EPL's 2013-16 seasons, was ordered to share its football booty with StarHub.

The cross-carriage rule aims to promote competition by not allowing pay-TV providers to compete for content via high bids and then provide it to their own subscribers exclusively.

The rule also lets consumers use just one telco's set-top box to access shared content.

SingTel had tried to argue that its EPL deal wasn't exclusive, but the regulator didn't buy that argument.

The telco reacted to the order to share EPL by raising rates, arguing that it could not subsidise its competitor's subscribers.

The upshot? SingTel's existing mio TV subscribers will still pay the old rates. But new subscribers and those recontracting will pay from $64.90 a month for a Gold Pack, which includes movies and entertainment. This is substantially more than the $34.90 charged previously for a sports bundle, including EPL.

StarHub viewers will pay $59.90 a month to watch EPL.

StarHub has also rolled out packages to entice those in the rival camp as well as encourage its subscribers to stay with it to watch EPL and other content.

But amid the fancy brochures and touted savings dangled by both telcos in playing up their packages, the fact remains that the cost to watch EPL has ballooned - compared to last season's basic $34.90 deal.

Worst off are probably mio TV subscribers on the old $34.90 basic football deal.

It is no wonder then that the 400,000-plus mio TV subscribers - many of whom probably signed up for the football - may now wonder if the cross-carriage rule, though well-intentioned, has scored an own goal instead.

While the rule covers all exclusive content, it is hard to imagine any telco will fight tooth and nail to acquire, say, channels dedicated to nature, movies or showbiz.

This is because alternatives are hardly in short supply.

No HBO? There's Fox Movies. No Animal Planet? There's National Geographic.

But football - specifically EPL - was always going to be the trophy to have, and SingTel had used its negotiating muscle to wrangle out a deal for the 2013-16 seasons.

But the rub is that while the Media Development Authority (MDA) has insisted that content be shared, it is staying out of the pricing picture. Its only instruction is that everyone must be charged the same for similar content.

Some folk, while willing to accept short-term pain for the greater good of the cross-carriage rule, hope the telcos will see it is in their interest to bid lower for EPL rights next time.

They could. But I would not be surprised if they fail to clinch a deal.

You can count on the people granting the EPL rights to play hard ball. And the current lofty prices have already set a benchmark.

EPL rights sellers could also choose not to sell the rights to Singapore at all. The aim would be to indicate to other customers round the world that they have a valuable product and will not blink at the negotiating table.

Apart from that, SingTel and StarHub might still be interested to get the rights to expand their market share beyond just cable TV.

After all, with the proliferation of mobile gadgets, shelling out a bundle may still make business sense if the telco concerned can use such platforms to soak up advertising and sponsorship revenue.

In the current tussle for subscribers, SingTel has also rolled out a platform for mio TV customers to enjoy live football on mobile gadgets - a carrot which it is not giving to StarHub customers who take up its EPL content.

Even if there were one telco bidding for the rights, one suspects that the good old days of cheaper costs are probably history.

The sport has not stayed still, with foreign owners of EPL clubs pumping more money into the game. This has made it more alluring for viewers, which in turn has allowed the league to extract a bumper TV revenue windfall.

Everyone everywhere has to pay for this, and Singapore is unlikely to be exempted.

One hope is that in about three years, when SingTel's deal matures, both telcos could get non-exclusive EPL rights at a lower price that is still attractive to the seller. Then, each telco could determine how best to bundle its offerings without the current one-price-for-all.

For now, however, the choices are stark. Pay more and feel the pinch. Opt not to watch EPL. Or hope for some intervention from the authorities.

Perhaps MDA could recognise that sport is a different beast and that it is best taken out of the purview of the cross-carriage rule.

It could still happen.

Tellingly, the fine print in SingTel's advertisements indicates that it has the right to yank EPL matches away from StarHub subscribers the moment MDA mandates that such matches need not be cross-carried.

kengfatt@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Aug 9, 2013To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to http://www.sphsubscription.com.sg/eshop/