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(The following press release from The Business Times was received by e-mail. The sender verified the statement.)

StarHub starts BPL talks, points fingers at SingTel, MDA 2013-03-16 00:30:34.516 GMT

By Joyce Hooi

March 16 (Business Times) -- STARHUB has started talks for the Barclays Premier League (BPL) broadcast rights, but continued to cry foul, calling on SingTel and the Media Development Authority (MDA) not to "rob" viewers of fair play.

"We are finally able to open negotiations with the Premier League (PL) this week," StarHub said yesterday.

In the same breath, however, it made much of the five-month headstart that its rival, SingTel's mio TV, had in clinching the non-exclusive BPL rights last October.

"As sports content is particularly time-sensitive, it is critically important that the broadcast rights to key sports content is either truly non-exclusive or is subject to cross-carriage," StarHub added.

This made an implicit reference to MDA, the regulator that polices the cross-carriage rule, which is based on the distinction between exclusive and non-exclusive content.

StarHub's parting shot in its statement was: "Our message to our competitor and the regulator is: 'Don't rob Singapore viewers of fair play!'

In response, SingTel said: "We find it bewildering that StarHub continues to grouse even after PL has started talking with them. SingTel completed its negotiations with PL within two months.

"Instead of . . . complaining to the press, StarHub should work hard on negotiating with PL like SingTel did and get its deal with PL done by May, which will give Singapore football fans ample time to decide if they wish to enjoy the upcoming PL season on mio TV or on StarHub."

It added: "It's time for StarHub to stop feigning injuries and to just get on with the game."

MDA was similarly unamused. "The mandate of ensuring fair play and protecting consumer interests is enshrined in our Media Market Conduct Code. Any suggestion that we have not upheld these principles will be taken very seriously," it said yesterday.

"As a regulator, our decisions are based on thorough, robust and fair assessment in accordance to due process. We will not be pressured by any party into doing otherwise."

The cross-carriage rule obliges operators to share exclusive content with rivals upon request. StarHub is alleging that SingTel's deal is in effect an exclusive one and therefore subject to the rule. MDA is still investigating the matter, with a finding expected by next month.

After SingTel won non-exclusive BPL rights for the 2013-2016 seasons last year, StarHub's attempt to start its own talks was rebuffed by the Premier League - even after the exclusive negotiation period with SingTel ended in December - for reasons that remain unclear.

StarHub believes that the delay was driven by a "rebate structure" in SingTel's deal with the Premier League, decreasing any incentive to negotiate with StarHub.

SingTel denies that there are clauses in its contract that reduce the incentive for the entry of another operator.

But StarHub stuck to its claim in sideways fashion yesterday by referring to the Euro 2012 matches that it carried last year. "For this widely anticipated sporting event ... we could have signed a 'non-exclusive' contract with a prohibitively high rebate and an 'exclusive negotiating period', to block access to the content. Instead we chose to comply with the cross-carriage regime," StarHub said.

Not all is lost even if StarHub were to buy the rights at this stage, some say. "There is ample time to drive the StarHub proposition. (If) they get it now, and at a reasonable cost, they could potentially hurt SingTel with it," said Vivek Couto, executive director of Media Partners Asia.

Some quarters of football fandom who remember the technical disruptions on SingTel's watch that marred last season's final matches will doubtless root for StarHub as an alternative broadcaster.

"It will be massive competition between the two players. They will have to competitively price their offerings (and) be forced to deliver a better quality of service," Mr Couto said.

But while fans will cheer if StarHub were to win its own set of rights, shareholders might boo.

This time around, the BPL rights might have set SingTel back about US$250 million, Mr Couto estimated. Some analysts expect the weight of the rights to crimp SingTel's margin. While SingTel might be able to stomach it, StarHub, with its shallower pockets, might have a smaller appetite to match.

"While StarHub could win back some pay-TV customers should it secure the rights, we do not believe that it is crucial ... it has done fairly well without BPL content for the past three years," said OCBC Investment Research's Carey Wong last October when SingTel won the rights.

Whether StarHub will continue to do well sans BPL is another matter. Last year, it lost 9,000 subscribers on a net basis as mio TV painted more of the turf red.

Given how StarHub is urging MDA to referee the situation now, the pay-TV operator might have found that the goalposts have moved very much over the last few months.

Copyright 2013 Singapore Press Holdings

-0- Mar/16/2013 01:05 GMT

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