TV profligacy

By P Gunasegaram, The Star

Increased distribution channels for home TV may well result in a proliferation of offerings to Malaysian viewers. But then again will it?

MUCH is happening at television these days. We now have high definition (HD) with crystal clear images on satellite TV and if the government undertakes a RM2bil programme to digitalise terrestrial TV, you may get HD over the air too.

We already have TV over the Internet in addition to the traditional terrestrial and satellite channels, leaving only cable yet to be developed as a major distribution channel.

But, the latest news is that we may also be plugged in via cable with a company already having obtained rights to that and recruiting heavily so as to be able to start services not too long from now.

Is that a good thing for Malaysians? Will we get more choice and be spoilt silly by a plethora of channels offering anything and everything under the sun barring pornography using all four main distribution channels?

Depends. It’s a question of whether the new entrants have deep pockets, a good business plan, a long-term strategy, and great execution to eventually make their ventures profitable.

Basically, at the moment, the terrestrial stations such as TV3, TV1, TV2, NTV7 etc and the sole satellite TV provider, Astro, have the market more or less sewn up. While terrestrial TV is free and depends totally on advertising revenue, Astro still depends mainly on subscription from its over one million subscribers although its advertising revenue is increasing.

Now Internet Protocol TV or IPTV threatens to change the name of the game by offering channels at quite low cost. The main players appear to be TM with its Hypp TV offered with its Unifi broadband service, Maxis and Astro.

The new buzzword with the advent of high-speed broadband or HSBB is triple play – voice (phone), Internet and video (TV). TM is offering that with its Unifi while Maxis which has access to some of TM’s rollout of HSBB is looking to its own triple play offering. Astro, keen to defend its pay TV market share, is also offering it’s Beyond service on Internet.

The field is decidedly getting crowded but the vital keys to success are two – delivery and programming. TM’s Unifi service forces IPTV upon the subscriber – they say its free and they cannot detach it from the Unifi service, much like you have to take Streamyx together with the fixed line even if you don’t want it. Why that has to be so, I don’t understand.

The take up for TM’s Hypp TV will depend on the Unifi rollout which still seems to be slow and which some subscribers are not keen on because of installation, which requires in some cases hacking walls and digging up gardens. Still whether people will watch Hypp TV or not will depend on programming – if it is good they will watch it but if it is not, they won’t.

Good programming costs money, eventually, lots of it if you want to, say, have a hundred channels or more like Astro. That means you have to charge for it and quite a bit at that.

It’s going to be pretty difficult to go against Astro which has major programming and slots already sewn up and a strong revenue base. What would induce Astro subscribers to go somewhere else? Only one thing: Better programming at lower costs.

That’s going to take quite a bit of doing – a very long gestation period, plenty of unremitting investment, great execution and an excellent delivery system. It’s not impossible but it’s going to be very difficult. Incidentally it took Astro 10 years to break even.

And we are not even talking about cable TV yet and the costs of pulling cables into the homes!

Meantime, if you could send digital terrestrial signals with that RM2bil plan we talked about earlier, that might see a revival of the free TV stations who will depend on advertising revenue to make their money.

What would I do meantime? I am not holding my breath for TV channels. Besides, I am not a great TV fan.

I just hope I can hook up to Unifi without major renovation to my house and digging up my garden yet again, and without the bother of TV and phone.

I have a very much under-utilised Astro Beyond service which is more than adequate for all my TV viewing and radio channels too. And I have a mobile phone and can use Skype for my overseas calls. And I can get programming on the Internet.

I don’t want or need triple play. I just want and need single play – just get me on the Net with plenty of speed to surf, watch and download.

But the trouble is no one will give me that alone. And I am sure there are others like me out there. And if there is a need, there is a market, no? Hello, anybody out there?