Digital TV dream can't be allowed to turn into a nightmare

Digital TV dream can't be allowed to turn into a nightmare

Lack of certainty and an excess of confusion over the allocation of spectrum to be used for digital TV in Thailand have caused anxiety and frustration for the broadcasting industries and citizens. If not properly addressed, these problems will create an unnecessary nightmare for the public.

A man inspects soon-to-be dumped analogue sets as television makes the transition to a digital system. Short of transparent bidding rules and licence conditions, however, public television channels meant to serve public interest may remain under state control. PANUMAS SANGUANWONG

The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC) will have lots of revisions and explaining to do to prevent this nightmare from unfolding.

The prospect of having digital TV, though belatedly, should come as welcome news. The number of free-to-air channels has increased to 48, some of them in high definition (HD), up from the current six standard definition (SD), promising to offer the public a superior viewing experience.

Access to higher-quality programmes, such as news and current affairs shows, is meant to lead to a better informed and participatory society. However, this opportunity may turn into a nightmare and Thailand could miss out on the chance to reform its media sector.

Here are some nightmare scenarios which should be avoided.

First, most of the 12 new "public television" channels could turn out to be "government channels", focusing on their own interests rather than the broader public interest. The state's coffers could be squandered to fund these pseudo-public television channels, which no one wants to watch.

Valuable frequency spectrum will also be wasted. Programme producers with political connections will be the only ones who benefit if this happens.

Imagine various line ministries taking control of the "public television" channels to advance their agendas. If this happens, Thailand will become a country in which the government controls the largest proportion of television channels in the democratic world.

Second, due to loopholes in the NBTC auction rules, private providers can bid for cheaper news or children's channels but use them for entertainment purposes.

The current starting bid price for an entertainment channel is 380 million baht, while news and children's channels are priced at 220 and 140 million baht, respectively.

Similarly, they can bid for SD channels but use them as HD, as the NBTC has yet to disclose the planned number of SD channels that will be upgraded into HD as well as the time-frame.

In short, the significant variation in the bidding prices will provide incentives to the private providers to go for the cheaper channels which will not use them as intended.

As another example, the two channels allocated for national security issues may end up broadcasting mostly entertainment programmes, as currently exemplified by the army-run Channel 5. Real national security issues such as conflicts in the deep South will not be the focus of these stations as they would not attract advertising money.

In the above scenario, private bidders would be paying low costs for the licences, while gaining handsomely from advertising revenue. CIMB Securities (Thailand) estimates the advertising revenue for digital TV will be far more than that of the current analogue TV, reaching well beyond 200,000 million baht a year in 2022.

The current rules will thus derail the 15-year attempt to reform the media system.

So how should we prevent these nightmares from happening? I would like to offer four recommendations.

First, the public television channels should be designed and regulated to serve the public interest, not the government's. The NBTC should issue bidding rules and license conditions to ensure high standards for public television channels. It should withdraw the licences of stations whose viewer ratings drop below a pre-specified threshold. This would weed out these pseudo-public channels and free up the spectrum for further use.

Secondly, the channels allocated for national security should broadcast mainly national security issues. Controls and oversight should be put in place to ensure that they are not used for unrelated purposes.

Thirdly, the ratio of news and current affair content of the "news channels" should be set back to the initial 75% from the current level of 50%. For news channels, it should be required that the majority of the programmes shown are aimed at informing citizens of current affairs, facts and information.

Finally, the NBTC should establish clear procedures about the conversion of SD into HD channels. Bidders should be well-informed in advance of the number of channels available for HD and SD bidding.

These nightmares are avoidable if the NBTC really has a will to reform.

The conversion from analogue to digital TV system should bring about "digital dividends" rather than a "digital nightmare" for the country.


Somkiat Tangkitvanich is president of the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.

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