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SingTel sidesteps cross-carriage rule in EPL deal

Pay TV operator signs another three-season deal but on a non-exclusive basis, so it isn't bound by Singapore's cross-carriage rule to share content with rival StarHub.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

Singapore Telecommunications (SingTel) has scored the rights to broadcast the English Premier League (EPL) for another three seasons, this time, on a non-exclusive basis.

That effectively means it will not be subjected to the country's cross-carriage rule, which states pay TV operators must cross-carry content that are exclusive.

Ironically, the government had introduced the measure in 2011 as the result of SingTel's previous three-year deal to broadcast the popular football league, snatching the exclusive rights from Singapore's other pay TV operator, StarHub, with a reported S$400 million bid.

Since the current deal is non-exclusive, StarHub is free to negotiate its own deal with the FAPL (Football Association Premier League), which manages the league's broadcast and sponsorship agreements.

StarHub was obviously caught unawares of the latest development. In a statement to local media, spokesperson Jeannie Ong said: "We are surprised FAPL did not conduct a tender for Singapore, departing from all past practice. We will be seeking clarification from FAPL before deciding on our next course of action. We will be keen to acquire the EPL only if the price is right."

After a couple of quick calls, StarHub told me it has yet to decide on its next move. I had asked if it would approach Singapore's Media Development Authority (MDA), which regulates content and oversees the cross-carriage ruling. [UPDATE: Oct. 12, 10.23am] It did confirm, though, that it had been in discussions with FAPL for some time, and this was why Wednesday's announcement came as such a surprise.

A MDA spokesperson also confirmed that because this was a non-exclusive content agreement, it would not fall under the cross-carriage measure and would be deemed a commercial deal.

[UPDATE: Oct. 11, 9.11pm] Asked how it would deal with an enquiry should StarHub decide to approach the regulator as its next course of action, the MDA official said: "We do not comment on hypotheticals. StarHub is an experienced operator and we are confident that they know how to protect their interest, including lodging a complaint to MDA if they feel they have a case."

SingTel told local newspaper Today it had initiated discussions with the FAPL first and opted for non-exclusive rights after "taking into consideration customers' feedback". It said this was the "best way forward" based on customer convenience and experience, and brand impact.

SingTel added that tenders in Asia were to commence today but Singapore was excluded from this because it had only two pay TV operators. It declined to say how much it paid to secure the new deal.

[UPDATE: Oct. 12, 10.41am] Elle Todd, partner at law firm Olswang Asia, said FAPL was not required to conduct a tender, but it had tended to do so in the past in Singapore. "So it was a surprise it chose not to on this occasion," she said in response to my e-mail query. Todd added that negotiations for the premier league has always thrown up surprises and there will likely be more to come before the negotiation process concludes.

Sooo, it sounds like StarHub was blindsided--as were some of us--and SingTel's relationship with FAPL has been extremely...cozy, to say the least.

I don't see how StarHub can find recourse in way of the Singapore government, since SingTel in essence stayed out of regulatory boundaries by artfully signing a non-exclusive deal.

And if it chooses not to acquire EPL broadcast rights should it fail to secure "the right price", StarHub will risk losing more customers, many of whom had moved to SingTel primarily because of the EPL.

More importantly, SingTel had been plagued with poor transmission quality and connection issues, including the final round of crucial matches on May 13 this year when customers complained of distorted and stalled images.

This presents an opportune time for StarHub to step in and win back its lost EPL customers, even if the price may not be right.

It also suggests the Singapore government needs to realize a market as small as two players may require special riders to go with any ruling, to ensure consumer interest is adequately protected.

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