All horses at the digital-TV gate thanks to tricky compromise

opinion October 11, 2014 01:00

By Veena Thoopkrajae

5,515 Viewed

A promotional "music video" starring Sorrayuth Suthassanachinda, Kitti Singhapat and other members of the "Channel 3 news family" might be the easiest thing to understand about the whole sordid Channel 3 analog saga.

The commercial conveys the important message that viewers can watch the “Channel 3s” anywhere, right now – meaning its four incarnations. The timing couldn’t be better. Today Channel 3 analog will begin simulcasting content to its “sister”, Channel 3 HD. 
The tug-of-war between Channel 3’s owners and the National Broadcast and Telecommunication Commission (NBTC) has at last ended in a compromise.
Channel 3 analog tried but failed to maintain its free status, and yet the Administrative Court’s ruling makes it look like the winner. Its shows are to be simulcast on Channel 3 HD, a move the station had all along insisted was illegal but is now happy to accommodate. All it has to do is make sure those shows go out smoothly to its HD channel. It’s left to the NBCT to resolve any potential legal fallout.
The precise details are being kept under wraps for the moment while the regulator and the station maintain a wary “don’t ask, don’t tell” silence. But at least we have the assurance that Channel 3, the industry leader, won’t try to bring down the entire edifice erected for digital TV. The very legality of the NBCT had been in question at one point. 
Natee Sukhonrat, chairman of the broadcasting watchdog, has acknowledged that legal issues remain. 
To start with, two different firms run Channel 3 analog and Channel 3 HD, Bangkok Entertainment Co operating the former under a concession with Mcot and BEC-Multimedia in charge of the latter. Simulcasts could therefore be in violation of Article 43 of the Frequency Allocation Act, as well as an NBTC rule that digital licence-holders must produce at least 60 per cent of the content on offer. 
Everyone knew these rules and regulations going in, but finding a way around them proved so tricky that the debate dragged on and on.
Oddly enough, the NBTC has also welcomed the court’s compromise solution. But perhaps it is indeed a winner too if the ultimate goal is to force Channel 3 analog to hop aboard the digital train. It has prevailed, in that sense. Unfortunately for the regulator, its lawyers must now find a path across a legal quagmire to rationalise the arrangement. All documents pertaining to Bangkok Entertainment and BEC-Multimedia and their respective powers (and accounting) will be in for considerable scrutiny. 
Naturally everyone in the industry is following developments closely, not least Channel 7, chief rival to Channel 3 analog. It has made it clear that it won’t tolerate any form of competitive edge being granted to Channel 3 analog. 
The court ruling was vague on the matter, saying both channels would have the same privileges, but Channel 7 could be forgiven for taking umbrage when it’s been obeying NBTC directions from the beginning. 
Television’s others big guns have applauded the court decision simply because it clears the decks for the NBTC to get on with distributing cash coupons with which consumers can buy the set-top equipment they need to watch digital content. 
It would be fair for the regulator to blame the coupon delay at least in part on the Channel 3 “problem”. Channel 3 certainly failed to see the irony in citing the delay as one of the reasons it didn’t want to go digital just yet – the viewers weren’t equipped to see it anyway. Chicken-or-egg jokes can be funny. This one wasn’t. 
With the “preliminaries” over and the ballgame finally ready to begin, everyone is on his front foot and keen to get moving, the sooner the better to bring in advertising revenue.
Channel 3 analog, theoretically on an equal footing with every other channel, is evidently hoping its “happy family” music video will start tipping the balance in its favour. It needn’t worry much, of course, since its fan base is by far the largest in the country. It’s the other stations seeking to steal those viewers that might give Channel 3 pause. 
The latest AGB Nielsen ratings show Workpoint’s digital channel doing very well, ahead of Channel 5, NBT and Thai PBS, and Channel 8 from RS is outgunning NBT and PBS too. 
What we’re watching, however, is a marathon race, and there’s bound to be a lot of surges and fallbacks as this year proceeds into next. 
Meanwhile, even if neither the NBTC nor Channel 3 analog can really claim to be the outright winner in their confrontation, it turns out that we, the viewers, might have come out best of all. New shows are appearing all the time, and those coupons will soon be on their way.