Going after Android set-top boxes won’t bring back viewers for pay-TV players

January 14th, 2018 | by Alfred Siew

It isn’t surprising that pay-TV and content players have taken two Android streaming box sellers in Singapore to court this week.

Neither is the piracy they have alleged that these boxes could enable, through streaming apps delivered on the hardware. What’s hard to understand is their purpose for doing so.

Yes, they are sending a message to box sellers and consumers alike. They seem to be asking the courts to take a stronger stand against such streaming boxes, which do not unscramble the signals from StarHub or Singtel and are thus seen by many to be okay to use.

Yes, this highly-publicised case could slow the sales of similar boxes and more importantly, the contentious streaming apps, if that is what the rights owners – StarHub, Singtel, Fox Networks Group and the folks behind the English Premier League (EPL) – are after.

And yes, by going after box sellers Synnex Trading and An-Nahl, and their directors, through a private prosecution, the rights owners are saying they mean business.

A private prosecution, though initiated by private parties instead of the state, could bring stiff penalties like a jail term, if a defendant is found guilty. Copyright owners sometimes prefer this to simply suing someone and getting monetary compensation.

Still, the question remains. The aggrieved parties certainly can bring the matter before the courts, which will rule on its merits. However, the problems facing the industry today go beyond piracy.

What’s clear is that StarHub and Singtel face a grim outlook today. Pay-TV customers have been returning their set-top boxes and cut the cord, but that’s probably not because they’ve suddenly found an Android box to watch pirated shows on.

More likely, they have found Netflix, Amazon Prime, Viu and many better-priced streaming options online. These services are legit and offer a better experience.

A Netflix subscription starts from S$10.98 in Singapore – that’s roughly what you pay to rent a cable set-top box from StarHub.

Not only does it have thousands of shows to choose from, its interactive features are miles ahead of similar options offered by StarHub or Singtel.

That’s not to mention the free programmes available on other channels such as YouTube. No, not the pirated versions of stuff you find sometimes, but original content made by independent creators enabled by the video sharing platform.

If you wish to catch up on the latest in Japanese food, for example, lots of online video channels will provide well-made guides on where to get your ramen, sushi and tempura. There’s a lot of legit stuff to watch after cutting the cord.

This is the real reason why StarHub and Singtel are hit by falling numbers. For the third quarter of 2017, StarHub saw its pay-TV base drop by 40,000 from a year ago. Revenue fell by 9 per cent.

Singtel has fared better but still lost ground. It lost 15,000 customers over a year, according to its latest annual report in 2017.

Though its revenue has been growing slightly in the past year, some of this is through sub-license deals for its content. This has to go towards paying for the millions it already spent to acquire EPL broadcast rights earlier.

If you asked anyone who’s cut the cord or never even gone on traditional pay-TV, there’s simply no going back to the bad, old set-top boxes.

Yes, there are streaming services from StarHub and Singtel too, but they do not enjoy the monopolies they used to enjoy with pay-TV in the past. They are now just one of many options available to users today.

The biggest problem for pay-TV players isn’t piracy – it’s the sheer amount of content out there. People are no longer “funnelled” into watching pay-TV programmes.

Gone are the days when content owners divided the globe into various markets, then sold the content to pay-TV operators, which in turn sold it in packages to users who had few other options. Control the limited amount of pirate options and you maximise your profit.

You can’t do that today, as we know. Game of Thrones, probably the most pirated show online, came to people’s computers and TVs faster than their TV operator at times. The solution has to be a better experience for users, at a price they will pay.

Some, like HBO, which owns the Game of Thrones TV rights, are offering that. Its shows are now available on an app – though still on StarHub – that you can stream on any device. It costs S$19.90 a month and you don’t need a set-top box or have to subscribe to other channels you don’t want.

That’s clearly the future that many viewers desire, when they pay for an experience that makes sense. If you ask them, an Android box is just a box – you can stream a pirated video or you can watch StarHub’s or HBO’s streaming service on it.

For rights owners, going after such boxes may send a message. But winning over users will be a lot harder.

CORRECTION at 18/01/2017 4:41pm: An earlier version of the story stated that Singtel had lost 16,000 pay-TV customers over a year. It should be 15,000 instead, according to its annual report. We are sorry for the error.

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