Last update 11/12/2010 11:16:00 PM (GMT+7)

What’s the social obligation of a TV football broadcaster?

The Channel K+ scheme to charge for access to elite European football matches continues to upset the nation’s fans. Luu Vu Hai, chief of the Radio Television Broadcast and Electronic Information Agency, and several experts comment on the social implications of ‘privatising’ football matches. The interviews originally appeared in Tuoi Tre newspaper.

Tuoi Tre: After K+ announced that it holds exclusive rights to broadcast certain English Premier League matches and offered expensive service packs, provoking a public furor, it is said that some television stations complained to the Radio Television Broadcast and Electronic Information Agency that K+ has violated Article 11 of the Law on Competition.  Is that true?

Luu Vu Hai: That’s right! We have also received letters from some provinces complaining about the situation. We are considering these complaints from a legal perspective.  I must say that this is a very new matter. There’s no precedent in Vietnam. It is very complicated; the state’s agencies will have to deal with it based on the law, after getting advice from the Trade Ministry’s Agency for Competition Control or the Ministry of Justice.

Tuoi Tre: But state agencies can immediately address one thing: four different state-owned companies negotiated at the same time with the vendor to buy the same product. That pushed the price up to the detriment of local consumers.

Hai: So it is reported by the media. We will have to check.  Though it may be true, we have to understand that these are four independent companies, even though three companies are subsidiaries of VTV, our national broadcasting company.  They are not four television stations.

If VTV signs three contracts to buy broadcast rights at the same time, state management agency can intervene, but it is very difficult for the State to intervene in the business activities of four legal entities.

Tuoi Tre: In a recent interview, you mentioned the social responsibility of state-owned companies. Cable provider K+ is also a state-owned firm. . . .

Hai: Yes, companies must have a social responsibility to develop sustainably -- especially state-owned companies, otherwise they will be boycotted by the society.

Tuoi Tre: So how will the K+ case be solved?

Hai: We will try to collect and process information based on the law. For the issues that the law doesn’t fully cover, state agencies will sample popular opinion.  My agency is about to hold a seminar on television programming copyrights.

Vo Van Cam, director of the Ba Ria - Vung Tau Province Television Station: Everyone knows that VTV is the national television station of Vietnam and VTC is also a national multimedia group. The other companies joining this race for broadcast right are also VTV subsidiaries.  Society is sustaining losses because of the competition among local companies, which pushed the broadcast copyright charges up. They buy broadcast right at high prices, so they will have to collect higher charges. The important matter here is VTV’s own interests and the interests of related firms in this race.

Huynh Kim Ngoc, deputy director at Dong Nai Province TV: In principle, we have to respect broadcasting rights ownership.  However, this case shows that we need to have an association of paid television channels to represent local broadcasters in negotiations with foreign content providers. This will limit competition among local broadcasters which will push the fees up.

Right now it’s an issue of football broadcasts, but it will gradually spread to other fields like movies and performances.  If our local broadcasters compete with each other, it’s the audience that will suffer.

Dr. Nguyen Duc An, lecturer on the media at Stirling University, UK: If a law stipulates that VTV is entirely a public television service, it ought to be totally supported by the state budget and banned from doing business for profit, even selling advertisements. It would perform political and social functions in reporting news and providing educational and entertainment programming to the whole society. This aspect has never been clarified in Vietnam. In principle, all television stations are public services but in fact, owning to limited funding and other reasons, commercial purposes dominate their operations.

It would not be a surprise if sooner or later the Vietnamese have to pay money to watch football on television. We are operating in a globalised market so Vietnam must dance to the global tune.  We need to ask, however -- in a country where most of the population are poor, should the market be allowed to decide all media services?

I was fairly amazed to hear that a Vietnamese football fan will have to pay 3 million dong ($165) a year to watch European football events (not taking into account the up front investment in signal decoders).  Is it true that elite football has become a luxury reserved for the rich? That’s what VTV’s deputy general director Nguyen Thanh Luong seemed to say.

The price of educational services has increased, the prices for healthcare services may rise too, and now the prices for basic media services are also going up. How can the poor afford them?  I’d say it’s necessary for the authorities to take account of the public’s unhappiness about the K+ monopoly and the role of VTV in recent days.