(credit: Ronnie Macdonald, Creative Commons)
Singapore’s football fans will be relieved the ref has got a crucial decision right on Wednesday evening.
Ignoring SingTel’s pleas of innocence, the country’s media regulator clearly told the team in red to show the next three seasons of the Barclays Premier League on rival services, such as StarHub’s cable TV, starting in August.
In a landmark ruling, it essentially laid out how it will deal with pay-TV operators that have somehow found a loophole in its efforts to open up the market and rid it of ruinous exclusive content contracts that have killed consumer choice for years.
For football fans, the equation is simple. They will likely be watching live BPL matches on either SingTel’s mio TV or StarHub’s cable TV service, like they did with the Euro 2012 competition. In other words, no more having two set-top boxes to watch football and other programmes.
Crucially, the Media Development Authority’s (MDA’s) decision also means no going back to the dark days, when rival pay-TV operators kept bidding up prices for exclusive content in a badly distorted market.
The situation now is still in flux, to be sure. While StarHub promptly released a statement applauding the decision, a clearly upset SingTel said it will appeal – likely to the minister in charge – and “seek legal recourse if necessary”.
Despite its protestations, SingTel will have a lot of convincing to do.
Back in October 2012, when it surprised everyone by announcing it had signed a “non-exclusive” deal with the Football Association Premier League (FAPL) to show the next three seasons of live matches, it probably thought it had beaten the system.
On paper, this meant the door was open for StarHub to negotiate a separate deal. Soon, however, it became clear that things didn’t quite add up.
For months, the English rights owners apparently declined to speak with StarHub despite the deal with SingTel being non-exclusive. Then, StarHub complained to the regulator that its rival had in place a deal that came with a rebate – if the FAPL dealt with someone else, they would have to pay out a hefty fee to SingTel.
Though not in the same words, MDA now appears to have agreed with StarHub.
It said in a statement to the media that SingTel’s deal came with clauses which could have prevented or restricted the live broadcast feeds from being shown on another TV service.
This means SingTel is subject to new “cross carriage” rules that the MDA has just put in place to discourage operators from bidding up prices for exclusive content. SingTel has to show its exclusive football content on rival TV channels.
In the past, the wrong type of competition had pushed up costs and tied subscribers to one pay-TV operator, which the MDA is now against.
Perhaps SingTel has miscalculated the industry referee’s reaction this time. In truth, it left the regulator with little choice. The matter concerns more than just football rights.
If the MDA had allowed SingTel to do things its way after finding this “loophole” in the system, more content owners, who sell programmes for the hundreds of pay-TV channels in Singapore, may follow in the footsteps of the football rights owners and bypass MDA’s ruling in future.
That will be a big step backwards for the industry and its audience, just as things are looking up. An out-smarted, toothless regulator is what the MDA will be seen as.
Football fans will remember how all this unhealthy competition in football rights and exclusive content almost culminated in Singapore viewers not even being able to watch the World Cup on the telly in 2010.
Knowing the country’s operators would bid crazy amounts to acquire exclusive rights, the beautiful game’s rights owners had asked for astronomical amounts for TV rights. Only in the final days in the run-up to the World Cup was a deal struck to show the live matches here.
Fortunately, that appeared to be the much-needed wake-up call for the regulator. Up until then, the MDA had left things alone, to the detriment of pay-TV viewers as well as the industry’s development.
This time round, it has done right to safeguard consumer interest and make sure the market is not lopsided in favour of content owners, or an increasingly powerful SingTel keen to muscle its way into the market with its football rights.
This episode won’t be the last challenge for the MDA. In the hours after its decision, SingTel warned that non-mio TV viewers may have to pay “significantly higher monthly fees” to watch the live matches.
Is it trying to price out rivals? Will things drag on beyond August, when the new season kicks off? Many tough calls ahead for the referee, for sure. For now, it earns plaudits for standing firm.