World Cup fever in Thailand, brought to you by the military junta

Originally posted at Siam Voices on June 12, 2014

[Author's note: Due to the military coup of May 22, 2014 and subsequent censorship measures we have placed certain restrictions on what we publish. Please also read Bangkok Pundit's post on that subject. We hope to return to full and free reporting and commentary in the near future.]

If you're in Thailand and want to watch the FIFA World Cup in Brazil on television, chances are you could get confused by the TV broadcasting rights situation. But fear no more: Thailand's military junta is trying to ensure that everyone can see football's biggest tournament.

In the summer of 2012, many Thai football fans were caught off guard when they heard that they weren't able to watch the EURO 2012 through their True Vision cable subscriptions, since the broadcasting rights - although matches were aired on the country's free TV channels - belonged to another corporation and thus couldn't be re-broadcasted on another platform, despite last-minute attempts to remedy that. So, if people didn't want to watch the Euro via the conventional rabbit ears antennas, they had to buy another set-up box.

It seemed like things were about to repeat themselves for this year's World Cup, as there was yet another squabble over who gets to air what matches. The broadcast rights for the FIFA World Cups in 2010 and 2014 were bought exclusively by media conglomerate RS Public Company Limited in 2005. Initially, you'd have to buy another set-up box in order to watch all 64 matches on a dedicated channel.

However - with some degree of foresight and with the 2012 fiasco in mind - RS also sub-licensed all matches to other providers like PSI via satellite and True Vision on cable. Only 22 matches, including today's opening game (3am Friday, Thai time) and the final were to be broadcast on the terrestrial, army-owned Channel 7.

That's not enough according to the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC). In 2012, the NBTC issued a rule that certain sports events have to be aired on free TV regardless of the rights owner and its intended media platforms, taking a cue from similar regulations elsewhere as in the UK. These seven sport events are: the SEA Games, the Asian Games, the Olympic Games and their Paralympic counterparts, and the FIFA World Cup.

Already back then there was trouble brewing: RS argues since they have bought the rights in 2005 the NBTC 2012 ruling doesn't apply yet. But the NBTC insists that the ruling also covers the 2014 FIFA World Cup and thus RS must provide free coverage for all.

RS argues that it would have a negative impact on its business considering how fiercely competitive the Thai market for football broadcasting rights is. The European top leagues are split among different providers and in 2013 Cable Thai Holdings (CTH) managed to snatch the rights for the dominantly popular English Premier League from True Vision for an estimated sum of $320m for three seasons, becoming the worldwide record buyer.

It is not known how much RS has spent for the broadcast license for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. According to an economy news report from November 2006 (PDF), a source said that RS "paid $20m" while also complaining that previous Thai license holders only paid less than half the sum. When comparing to other countries - Germany's TV deal is estimated at $180m - this seems very low. On the other hand, RS was reportedly expecting 700m Baht - or $21.5m - in revenue and sponsorships.

(By the way, the world governing football organization FIFA is excepted to make $4bn in TV rights and marketing from this World Cup.)

In late March, the Central Administrative Court ruled in favor of RS arguing that the "must air" regulation can not be applied to the 2005 rights purchase retroactively. The NBTC appealed the ruling and RS subsequently threatened to black out the broadcast of some matches in order to "prevent further damages to its business," according to a lawyer representing RS. The NBTC argues that Thais have able to watch the World Cup free of additional charges since 1970 and only football fans in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore have to pay to watch the World Cup in Asia.

Then the Supreme Administrative Court ruled on Wednesday...

The Supreme Administrative Court on Wednesday ruled in RS Plc's favour in a case where the national telecom regulator tried to force the company to broadcast all 64 World Cup 2014 matches on free TV.

"Court rules in RS's favor", Bangkok Post, June 11, 2014

So everything is back to normal - 22 matches on free TV, all matches are paid content - right? Well, not quite...

Thailand's military junta, which promised to "return happiness to the people" after last month's coup, asked regulatory officials on Wednesday to find a way to allow the country's many soccer fans to watch the entire World Cup for free.

The junta contacted the chairman of the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission, the country's broadcast regulator, and asked him "to seek ways to return happiness to the people through viewing all of the 64 World Cup matches on free-to-air channels," NBTC secretary-general Takorn Tanthasit told a news conference.

"Thai junta to 'return happiness' through World Cup", Associated Press, June 11, 2014

That's right! In its newly announced quest to "return happiness to the Thai people" the military junta is now trying to bring ultimate joy to nearly all Thais by making the World Cup watchable for everyone, by trying to end a contractual and regulatory deadlock singlehandedly solely for the benefit of the Thai football fans, no matter how much that's going to cost.

And after some promising signs on Wednesday, it looked to be a done deal on Thursday morning, even before the official press conference, according to The Nation:

In a bid to live up to its motto of "Bringing happiness back to Thai people", the junta yesterday managed to pull off a deal for the live telecast of all World Cup 2014 matches on free TV, which will bring joy to 22 million households. (...)

TV5 [army owned] will televise 38 matches on top of 22 live matches on Channel 7 [also army-owned] under a contract between RS and Channel 7, a junta source said.

A press conference titled "TV5 returns happiness to Thai people to join the World Cup spirit" will be held today at Army's TV5 headquarters. Representatives from the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), the National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission (NBTC), TV5, broadcast rights holder RS, and sponsors will speak on their collaboration, NCPO spokesman Winthai Suvari said. (...)

A source said RS had sought Bt700 million [$21.5m] compensation from the NBTC, claiming the firm will lose the opportunity to sell about 1 million of its set-top boxes for the World Cup. RS has already sold 300,000 boxes.

The NBTC is looking at the possibility of tapping into the Research and Development Fund for Broadcasting and Telecommunications Services to compensate RS, but it could risk violating its regulation. The fund is valued at more than Bt20 billion [$615m].

"Free World Cup telecast", The Nation, June 12, 2014

However, Thai PBS reported on Thursday that the junta has denied ordering the NBTC to compensate RS for any loss in revenues, and that the broadcasting of all matches on terrestrial television in not a done deal:

The National Council for Peace and Order today denied that it has ordered the National Broadcasting and Telecommunication Commission to compensate RS Plc 700 million [$21.5m] baht if all World Cup matches are to be aired live on free TV channels. (…)

He said efforts are being made to enable the live broadcast if the channel via the research fund could not be done.

It could be in the form of sponsors from the private sector and from helpful people to make the broadcast of all matches on free channels, he said.

"Junta denies ordering NBTC to absorb RS broadcast right loss", Thai PBS, June 12, 2014

No word yet on whether or not this proposed unorthodox solution could be a breach with RS's contract with FIFA or if is this was a last-minute sub-licensing deal.

In any case, Thai football fans can tonight start watching the World Cup at ungodly late hours (kick-off for the opener is at 3am, Friday local time) from a variety of content providers with full happiness - and hopefully also free of charge soon.

Now, about that curfew that is still imposed in Bangkok...!

UPDATE [June 12, 2014]: