Pay TV war far from over

Singtel may have lost the fight to keep its prized English Premier League (EPL) broadcast rights away from rival StarHub, but the second half of the pay TV war is just kicking off.

Forced to share the standalone EPL channels with StarHub's customers, SingTel's old strategy of heavily subsidising EPL content to gain market share no longer holds water.

And that means pricing EPL higher.

That makes the only commercial sense after having spent what is believed to be hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire the rights to the next three EPL seasons, the first of which starts next month.

Which is why it is now offering StarHub subscribers the EPL channels at $59.90 per month. The price is significantly higher than SingTel's old $34.90 sports bundle - which came with Champions League and other sports content in addition to EPL.

SingTel now seems to be banking on consumers choosing its mega 80-plus channels Gold Pack bundle - which comes with EPL, the Champions League and more sports content in addition to a host of entertainment programming for $64.90.

Since the regulations require SingTel only to share its standalone EPL package, and not bundled packages, the telco's game plan is to convince football fans that it makes more sense to stick with mioTV for just $5 more.

Apart from its bundles, SingTel also indicated that it will work harder to improve the user interface of its pay TV service.

More importantly, though, it needs to work on improving the reliability of its service.

Fans have not forgotten the intermittent screen freezes during last season's nail-biting final-day matches. The freezes affected 115,000 households, about a third of its total customer base.

SingTel may have another card to play to gain a competitive edge over StarHub.

The cross-carriage rules apply only to its pay TV broadcasts and not to its Web and mobile rights. That means that SingTel can come up with another new bundle that lets its mioTV customers access EPL content on smartphones, tablets and PCs.

Previously, SingTel charged $8 for a 12-hour pass or $144 for an unlimited annual pass for anyone to view selected live EPL matches on its mioStadium website.

With the new cross-carriage rulings in force, it makes sense for SingTel to offer the complete experience to its mioTV customers exclusively, so that they can get their football fix any time, anywhere.

The pay TV fight dates back to 2006, when StarHub's 10-year pay TV monopoly came to an end. The same year, StarHub signed a new three-year contract for exclusive EPL broadcast rights, denying new rival SingTel the crowd puller.

Launched in July 2007, SingTel's mioTV made little impact until it wrested away the exclusive EPL rights from StarHub for three years from 2010, reportedly paying US$400 million (S$504 million) for the coup.

Many StarHub customers were unhappy that they had to fork out extra for another pay TV platform to enjoy all of their favourite channels. And then there was the hassle of extra set-top boxes and remote controls.

For football fans, it is best to not rush to sign up with their preferred pay TV provider yet, because StarHub is likely to come up with competitive content packages in due course.

Without a new bundle, StarHub customers will have to top up an extra $59.90, in addition to whatever they are currently paying, to get EPL. And that is not very attractive. The ball is now in StarHub's court.

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