Fans of the English Premier League (EPL) in Singapore can finally heave a sigh of relief. Local regulator, Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA), today issued an order for the next three seasons of the popular football league to be shared between the country's two main pay TV platforms operated by StarHub and SingTel.
MDA said SingTel must share EPL content with StarHub under Singapore's cross-carriage rule which mandates pay TV operators in the country must carry each other's content, eliminating the need for viewers to switch or subscribe to another operator.
Passed in July 2011, this regulation was enacted after SingTel in 2010 won the bid for the exclusive rights to broadcast three season of the EPL on its pay TV platform, mio TV, but in the process drove up subscription costs for consumers. The Euro 2012 football tournament was the first program to be subject to the legislation. StarHub had won the rights to air the competition, but matches were made available to SingTel customers.
As the end of current three-year EPL deal nears, many in Singapore including rival StarHub were caught by surprise when SingTel in October 2012 announced it had secured the rights to broadcast the football league for another three seasons--this time, on a non-exclusive basis. By doing so, it had effectively omitted itself from the corss-carriage rule, leaving StarHub free to negotiate its own terms for an EPL deal.
However, after its attempts to secure a deal were repeatedly put off by the Football Assocation Premier League (FAPL), StarHub grew increasingly frustrated and in February threw a complaint to the MDA, arguing that the SingTel deal was in effect exclusive. It pointed to a "rebate" the FAPL, which manages the league's broadcast and sponsorship agreements, might have agreed to pay SingTel if it chose to sell broadcast rights to StarHub.
In a statement it shared late-Wednesday with local media, MDA said: "Following a thorough examination of the agreement between SingTel and FAPL, and the information provided by SingTel and relevant parties, MDA concluded that the agreement contained certain clauses which prevent or restrict, or are likely to prevent or restrict the same content from being acquired or otherwise obtained for transmission on selected platforms in Singapore by other pay-TV retailers.
"These restrictions therefore trigger the cross-carriage measure, which became effective on August 1, 2011...[where] pay TV retailers that have aquired any exclusive content...must widen the distribution of such content by offering it to other subscribers."
Following the announcement, SingTel issued a statement saying it was "gravely disappointed with MDA's decision" which "disadvantages both consumers and the industry". It said it would appeal and seek legal resource if needed. The mio TV operator added that existing mio TV subscribers would not be affected, but warned that standalone EPL subscriptions would "most likely" be "significantly higher".
[UPDATE at 11PM, Wednesday: Singapore's Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) issued a statement to say it will consider SingTel's appeal against MDA's decision. The ministry said it would give "due consideration" to the appeal and hear representations from both SingTel and MDA before making a final decision on the appeal.]
In a statement, StarHub said: "We welcome the decision of the MDA to make the Barclays Premier League subject to the cross-carriage measure. Singapore viewers are the biggest beneficiaries of this decision and we are excited to be able to bring the BPL to our customers on our reliable network once again."
[UPDATE following the MCI's statement] Since the MCI has stepped up to say it's looking into SingTel's appeal, it may be premature for StarHub to bring out the champagne and celebrate. It seems to me SingTel is pushing hard to test the cross-carriage rule, which I personally think needs to be tightened or further tweaked to plug loopholes, specifically, the definition of what exactly is deemed "non-exclusive".
It's been a long wait but the decision--if the ministry decides to stay MDA's ruling--is a much welcomed one by local EPL fans, me included, and even more so for StarHub which no doubt has been waiting eagerly by the sidelines to win back customers it shed after losing the EPL deal to SingTel.
More importantly, it would be interesting to see how SingTel plans to compete in the pay TV market now that it has lost its main draw, especially since it has been struggling with quality issues and customer complaints about latency which affected its EPL broadcasts. In February, it was slapped with a S$180,000 fine for an islandwide service disruption in May 2012 that affected over 115,000 mio TV subscribers.
I'm also keen to see how fiber services providers such as MyRepublic and ViewQwest could potentially jump in to bundle streaming services. MyRepublic, for instance, recently launched its Teleport service which offers video and audio content from popular streaming sites including NetFlix and Hulu, as well as sports streaming sites TennisTV and NFL.
Let the games begin!