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HiTV, ACON lock horn in Court over EPL broadcast

By Prince Osuagwu
In late 2006 when Entertainment Highway Limited owners of HiTV, a Nigerian owned Digital Satellite and cable Television, snapped the European Premier League, EPL rights from the firm grips of South African owned Multichoice, Nigerians jubilated and perhaps heaved a sigh of relief that the cries and hues of monopoly in the Direct To Home and generally PayTV sector was over.

In fact many Nigerian were so excited that even the then Minister of Information and Communication, Mr Frank Nweke, at the commercial launch of HiTV broadcast in Lagos, where he played the special guest, described the status quo before HiTV as “ridiculous, exploitative and unacceptable”, adding that Nigerians pay the highest rate for Pay-TV services in any part of the world.

But unfolding events today has shown that, the feat was just to last for a while. Before HiTV acquired the broadcast rights of the EPL, Multichoice was heavily bombarded by especially many of indigenous cable Tv Operators in Nigeria, claiming that a south African company has dominated even the Nigerian airspace which is supposed to be a free space and blocked them form airing the English Premier league.

To them, that was monopoly which the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission Code, popularly known as the bible of all broadcast practitioners in Nigeria, forbade. No wonder the jubilation when an indigenous and indeed budding operator as at then, grabbed the right.

However, barely two years into this perceived Uhuru, the evil bird is crying again at the backyard of the Nigerian broadcast industry.
Last week, Hi-Tech reliably gathered that the Association of cable television operators ACON is dragging the Toyin Subair owned HiTV to court. Subair’s sins, according to the association was that his HITV is operating in an allegedly tyrannical way, refusing to grant them access to rebroadcast the English premiership matches even when they are ready to pay for such access.

The association considers this a heinous crime because, acquiring the EPL broadcast right was particularly easy for HiTV because it promised the property owners that it was going to allow the teeming cable TV operators in Nigeria access to rebroadcast the league game and thereby make the content more popular.

So for them, the solution is to seek redress in court since all entreaties and meetings with HiTV for close to two years now, collapsed without peaceful resolution. ACON wants the courts to declare that satellite television companies should license programmes especially the English premiership matches to other Cable TV companies if they are ready to pay the fees.

But Subair told Hi-Tech, that ACON was crying wolf instead of putting its house in order to do business in a more structured manner. In fact, for him, ACON members were lazy, running one shows as against a more standard structure that can allow them high profile business like rebroadcasting of the EPL.

“We have continuously offered them the rights but they don’t want to pay nor give bank guarantee as we gave or even run a proper business. Rather what they operate is a one man business without structure. They cried for over fifteen years that nobody could do the business but HITV has proven them wrong and now they’re talking about courts. Did they ever take DSTV to court?  He queried.

However, the ACON case is actually being spearheaded by a leading member of the association, CTL and seeks to reposition the operations of cable television industry in Nigeria which they claimed was nothing short of monopolistic at the moment.

The association is pained that the re-broadcast of  HITV  rights of the premiership, acquired for three seasons which would expire in 2010 have not yet been extended to other cable operators, even when it allegedly compelled and got many of the cable operators to go digital.

The association says its members were compelled to go to court after waiting in vain for HITV to give them the premiership to redistribute to their viewers scattered all over the nation as it is done across the world.

According to the Publicity secretary of ACON, Mr Kalada Wilson, “we are indeed bothered by the action of HITV who has vehemently refused to give these rights of rebroadcast to other cable companies in the past two years.

You know that sports and soccer are indeed veritable popular issues of television broadcasting world wide and in Nigeria in particular and the refusal of HITV to redistribute the premiership to other cable television operators has caused more harm than good to members of our association.

Staff had been sacked while equipment vandalized by protesting subscribers. We are all watching to see how the courts decide the matters. I believe that this will make us progress in the issue of cable television programming. Nigeria has a viable Cable Pay Tv industry having licensed more than a dozen Cable Tv operators through the National Broadcasting Commission, NBC.  It is estimated that Cable Tv employs 3, 000 Nigerians.

The largest Cable Tv operator CTL alone employs close to 500 Nigerians. HiTv got the EPL rights on the dubious claim that they would sub license the rights to the cable Tv operators. The Nigerian nation has a duty to protect its Cable Tv industry by engendering a level playing field.

Hi-Tech checks revealed that it is a global practice that Pay Tv rights are traditionally exploited through two windows – the Direct To Home (DTH) satellite pay Tv window and the Terrestrial pay Tv Cable Tv window.

International programming rights are auctioned only on the basis of National or regional coverage,  Therefore the Cable Tv operators  are, by nature of their  license, precluded from the international sports programming  bids since their licensees are city specific  as opposed to the DTH license which has a national coverage.

This therefore makes it imperative for Cable Tv companies to therefore depend on DTH for their programs and the DTHs are compelled by force of law to avail content to Cable Tv operators under reasonable commercial terms so that whatever Tv content that are offered on DTH window is made available also on the Cable Tv window so that the consumer may have a choice.

In the UK, though BSKY B holds the excusive franchise for the EPL, the big Cable Tv Company Virgin Media carries all the Sky sports channels including the EPL and offers these channels cheaper to subscribers than Sky.  In the US, COMCAST has all the premium sports and movie channels which are on the two major DTH rivals – Dish Tv and Direct Tv. DTH and Cable Tv are not actually competing but are complementary.

Cable appeals to a particular segment of the society who can not afford the high initial set up cost of DTH or who for cultural, religious, security or other reasons do not want the satellite dish installation near their home.


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