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World Cup saga shows NBTC needs better policy planning

From right: Ong-art Singlumpong, RS executive vice president, holds the football World Cup trophy with Lt-General Chart-udom Tithasiri, president of the Royal Thai Army Radio and Television Station (TV5), and Palakorn Somsuwan, managing director of Bangko

From right: Ong-art Singlumpong, RS executive vice president, holds the football World Cup trophy with Lt-General Chart-udom Tithasiri, president of the Royal Thai Army Radio and Television Station (TV5), and Palakorn Somsuwan, managing director of Bangko

The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission's decision to pay RS for the rights to broadcast all 64 World Cup matches raises more questions than answers on regulatory inefficiency, and reflects thinking that could hurt the nation in the long run.

Given the complexity of the competition environment in the broadcasting industry, more hiccups like this are sure to come, and the NBTC cannot forever spend hard-earned money reserved for better purposes - that is, to ensure equal access to all Thais. The blank screens during the Euro 2012 soccer matches and the row over World Cup 2014 serve as reminder of how desperately the regulator needs to polish its policies and become less defensive.

Right after winning the broadcasting rights from Fifa, the world soccer body, RS made it clear that only those buying its decoding boxes could view all of the matches live. To date, more than 300,000 boxes have been sold, raising some Bt450 million, which, coupled with some Bt60 million from TrueVisions, could help cover the broadcasting fee. (It remains unknown how those who bought the set-top boxes will be compensated.)

RS had agreed to air 22 matches on free TV channels.

The business environment has changed drastically since only a few companies controlled the broadcast market. All players can get into this market. Even mobile-phone companies can compete for the broadcasting rights, to woo more phone subscribers with sports contents. In this environment, some viewers will receive the services, at a price, while many will be left out.

Thai viewers are not alone in this regard.

For World Cup 2010, Singapore Telecom also jumped into the competition ring, which greatly boosted the prices soccer fans in the city-state needed to pay. This season, the fee is even higher.

According to The Straits Times, since 2012, Singapore's soccer fans have needed a pay-TV subscription to watch all live matches of the Fifa World Cup tournaments.

While it was free in 1998, Singapore CableVision won the broadcasting rights for the 2012 season and subscribers paying 28 Singapore dollars (Bt729) a month could watch them for free. In 2006, the early-bird price for subscribers to the StarHub sports TV group was set at S$10.50 ($15 a month in addition to basic fees).

In 2010, the early-bird price for StarHub and Singtel TV subscribers rose to S$70.62. For the 2014 season, StarHub and Singtel TV subscribers will have to pay $112.35. All this happened without any intervention by the regulator.

In the United States, regulators won't intervene either on what the holder of broadcasting rights, be it EPSN or Fox, would do with its contract.

Preventive steps

If we do not want this situation to reoccur, the NBTC is urged to sit down and discuss preventive measures. A rule is needed on who is to bid for the broadcasting rights of international sports and other events that are deemed necessary for Thai viewers.

The bidder, whether in the broadcasting business or not, will do so on behalf of all service providers. These service providers will be obliged to pay a fee relative to their audience or customer bases.

In this case, RS stands to benefit the most from the chaos. It was said to have paid Bt600 million for the broadcasting rights, part of the US$4 billion (Bt130 billion) Fifa has collected for this season. RS has reaped more than Bt400 million from the sale of decoding boxes and it is reaping another Bt427 million from the NBTC.

This is on top of advertising fees that it will reap as part of the "remedial subsidy" package struck yesterday.

RS's contract was sealed before the NBTC took office in October 2011. In fact, the regulator should not have got its hands into this chaos in the first place.

Now it can look forward and realise that there are no really free things in this world.




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