Digital TV master plan reaches a crucial juncture
Much criticised during 3G telecom bidding, NBTC faces another big testThe potential bidders are now satisfied. So, let's see what's in store for Thailand's TV viewers as the country looks poised to see yet another big explosion of television content. In no time, the country will have two dozen more TV channels - a substantial portion of them broadcasting in high definition - to add to the countless existing ones, which are already struggling to differentiate themselves from the competition.
The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) seems to have done well when it comes to preparing for the grand auction, judging from the initial reaction of prospective bidders. They seem to be happier following a revision in the number of channels dedicated to such categories as "variety" or "children's content". Everyone is getting excited. Loose partnerships are forming. Professionals in the industry are keeping a close watch on developments, and so are the advertisers. The media landscape looks set to undergo a major shift.
But when the dust concerning the bidders has settled a bit, the NBTC should spare some time to really look at a section of the industry that has not featured much in the news - the viewers. The independent body may argue that the digital TV master plan was mapped out with the consumers' interests in mind, but - as was the case with the telecom industry - decisive influences are not limited to people who watch TV, but include the so-called content providers, their sources of funds and future earnings.
Sometimes those factors - the sources of income and advertisers' preferences - clash with consumers' true benefits. Good content doesn't necessarily sell, and this is always a sticky point in the development of media, not just in Thailand, but around the world. Content providers are often torn between what they want to do and what the public (or the market) wants. It's the NBTC's job to look after the non-profit side of the industry as well.
The important questions concern such simple issues as what the basics were in deciding how many high-definition (HD) and standard-definition (SD) channels Thailand should have for now. The HD audience is still quite limited and clustered in big cities, while the majority of Thai people are still watching TV content in SD. How much of this plain fact was taken into account when the NBTC came up with the numbers of SD and HD channels, and then revised them?
TV's reach is the most attractive aspect as far as the bidders are concerned. While the number of newspaper readers is shrinking, more and more people are watching video content. The ideal that gave birth to the NBTC was that the telecom and broadcasting frequencies are national assets that must benefit all Thais equally. Such a philosophy has been distorted through the years, not least because investment in telecom and broadcasting businesses, although considerably cheaper now, still requires big budgets, something that only big players can afford. Last year's 3G bidding in the telecom industry underlined this painful truth, and the NBTC, despite its constitutional obligations, could do little about it.
TV is a bit different because the technology and expertise are more readily accessible than in the telecom industry. Professionals are everywhere and new ones are flooding into the TV business every day. Alliances are convenient to form and (no offence to the telecom sector) it may be just a bit easier to find a good number of ethical players who do not see huge profits as the most important things.
The NBTC has a better chance to ensure that not just the investors will benefit, but also the consumers. It will be an acid test for the independent organisation, which came into existence with much hope and expectation but has been bitten by the realities of Thai politics and business.