Digital television on brink of disaster

Digital television on brink of disaster

Digital TV operators declared last April the broadcasting structure has failed to help the industry, and since then, things have got worse. (Photo by Thanarak Khoonton)
Digital TV operators declared last April the broadcasting structure has failed to help the industry, and since then, things have got worse. (Photo by Thanarak Khoonton)

After six decades of stunted development, the state-oriented television industry entered a new epoch in 2014 when digital television technology became a reality, and 24 fresh television licences were granted to both old and new operators through an open bid administered by the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission of Thailand (NBTC).

But, alas! Those waiting for a breakthrough might be disappointed, as some emerging networks are already showing signs of disintegration, while the industry as a whole exhibits protracted growth.

For months, Pantipa Sakulchai -- previously a paparazzi magazine tycoon-turned owner of new outfit Thai TV, which won two digital 15-year licences for news and variety/children channels at a cost of almost 2 billion baht in total -- has made headlines by announcing she will throw in the towel. She blames deep financial losses from her new business venture, occasioned in part by NBTC policy mismanagement.

Furthermore, Thai TV has submitted a legal case for compensation from the NBTC for its failure to bring about a smooth and efficient systematic transition from analogue to digital by quickly supplying the promised quality digital antennas to all television households. And more importantly, not quickly terminating the dominant analogue television networks which compete for the scarce advertising baht.

The NBTC, on the other hand, is insisting that should Thai TV fail to deliver its second fee installment of 288 million baht by Saturday, its two networks will not be allowed to broadcast and its licences will be terminated, pending a huge compensation claim from the NBTC. In all likelihood, Thai TV will gleefully stop broadcasting, and sit and wait for its cases to appear in court.

The plight of Thai TV is just the tip of the iceberg. In similar fashion, five other digital television licence holders have submitted legal cases against NBTC for 9.5-billion baht in compensation. Simultaneously, practically all of the cable and satellite television networks have complained that the NBTC has not managed channel allotments fairly and efficiently, causing confusion and unforeseen loss of audience and revenue.

Evidently, the NBTC has often been criticised for over-independence and lack of accountability. It is not a seasoned outfit and has a lot to learn about evolving an efficient and fair policy management system concerning the television industry, which by the mid 2010s has become a very large and complicated business, composed of the previous six analogue networks, several cable and satellite networks, plus the new 24 digital television licences freshly granted in 2014. At the apex of this huge business system is advertising revenue worth billions of baht a year, the tricky rating system, and the rapid growth of home televisions to almost 100%, amounting to nearly 23 million households.

In reality, the fundamental structural transformation of such a big, multi-layered industry as television requires competent, thoughtful and far-sighted feasibility studies to provide a solid foundation for policy planning and management. The NBTC's central goal must always be to encourage healthy growth of the industry to serve the public good.

In this context, the role of the NBTC is not the crude responsibility to make the most of the financial opportunity by selling as many licences at the highest price as possible. In theory, the NBTC must act like a central bank by engaging in balanced fiscal and monetary policy to ensure healthy economic development for the nation.

In any event, the sudden offering of digital frequencies is entirely new to Thailand. Unlike other industries, running a television network 24 hours a day is a highly demanding and hectic enterprise. Originally driven by rosy imagination, the emerging players quickly find it hectic and time-consuming. This is why the top players, such as Workpoint, Mono and Channel 8, are all veterans with a measure of local content who fare well compared to the newcomers which are busy trying to fill their 24-hour time slots, mostly by buying similar imported programmes such as sports, series, movies, and documentaries in an effort just to survive the endless demands. Under such circumstances, the production of local quality content suffers for the simple reason of higher cost, creating an irreversible dependency on imported content.

The fact that television is, financially, one of the largest and most socially important industries affecting all parts of the economy and society, the conflict between the digital television licence holders and the NBTC naturally worries the nation's banking system.

The well-being of that sector is closely linked to a smooth resolution of the newcomers' problems because billions in bank guarantees have been issued upon corporate assurance of repayment.

Needless to say, the Bank of Thailand is keeping a close watch on the conflict and resolution developments out of concern that should the industry collapse it could cause unwanted disturbances that might prove detrimental to the overall economic system.

By all accounts of what is coming out into the open, most digital television operators are likely to report poor performances for years to come, both financially and content-wise. While it is probably true some new players were misguided by calculations of a quick profit, some analysts can powerfully argue the NBTC has put the whole television industry at risk by putting too many licences on the market at the same time, and setting unrealistic basic bidding costs and financial installment terms.

Whatever the case, the new industry has seemingly become a kind of killing field, with some operators destined to be victimised by a domino-style bankruptcy. This simple fact implies that digital television policy in its entirety might need a major revision to ensure fair competition and healthy development, to improve the industry's performance for the public good.

Since its emergence in the mid-1950s, television has steadily transformed the surface and inner spirit of Thai society in ways that remain to be fully delineated by scholars.

As participants of history-making, our collective duty is to make sure the sudden mushrooming of television networks, made possible by digital technology, presents a fresh hope that gives us a chance to build our culture and society much better than we did last century.

Before that happens, our television industry must be redesigned under a system of good policy management so it can move us forward with a new sense of direction and confidence.


Boonrak Boonyaketmala is a former professor and dean at Thammasat University, and programme director at the Thailand Research Fund. He is the author of 11 books and many book chapters on media policy, industry, politics, culture and society printed in Asia, America, and Europe, and by Unesco. Comments welcome at responses1234@yahoo.com.

Boonrak Boonyaketmala

Former dean at Thammasat University

Boonrak Boonyaketmala is a former professor and dean at Thammasat University, and programme director at the Thailand Research Fund. He is the author of 11 books and many book chapters on media policy, industry, politics, culture and society printed in Asia, America, and Europe, and by Unesco. Comments welcome at responses1234@yahoo.com.

Email : responses1234@yahoo.com

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