New rule injects more confusion into Vietnam pay-TV market

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The need to edit all content of foreign channels would set Vietnam apart from other countries in the region, experts say

A vendor sits in front of an audio-video equipment shop in downtown Hanoi. Vietnamese satellite television broadcaster K+ said on May 16 it has stopped airing several foreign channels including CNN, BBC and Star World to comply with a controversial new media law that took effect last week. PHOTO: AFP

K+ is the only satellite television station in Vietnam that has suspended foreign channels in compliance with a new government decision that requires content to be edited before it is broadcast.

"The interruption in broadcasting some foreign channels on K+ platform is in compliance with the regulation," said Jacques-Aymar de Roquefeuil, deputy general director of Vietnam Satellite Digital Television Company (VSTV) that broadcasts K+ channels.

VSTV is a joint venture between the two leading players Vietnam Television's VCTV and France's Canal+.

De Roquefeuil said all pay TV in Vietnam comes under the purview of the government's regulation, but, regretfully, only K+ has followed it.

Controversial decision

The incident has attracted wide attention because of its implications for Vietnam's rapidly developing pay-TV market.

Decision 20 on Regulations for Managing Pay Television, which took effect on May 15, says that all foreign channels on pay TV in Vietnam have to be edited to ensure there is no content that violates Vietnam's press and advertisement laws, except for live broadcasts of regional and international sporting events.

The Ministry of Information and Communications' Department of Broadcasting and Electronic Information is responsible for issuing an editing license for each channel.

Foreign channels must apply for the license with a government-sanctioned local partner who will "prepare" -- subtitle and edit -- their content for a local audience.

Editing licenses that are valid for up to 10 years are approved or denied within 30 days after an application is submitted.

The decision, part of efforts to improve management of the fast growing television market, has been dogged by controversy.

On May 15, K+ announced it was switching off 21 foreign channels, including CNN, BBC, Cinemax, Star World, Eurosport, Channel V, Fox Sport Plus, Eurosport News, AXN, CNBC, NGC HD, MGM, Discovery World HD, Diva Universal, Luxe TV, Channel News Asia, AXN HD, NHK World, Arirang, Star Movies HD and TLC.

"Most of these channels are in the administrative process for obtaining an editing license and VSTV is working closely with owners/agents of foreign channels on the issue," it said in a notice to viewers.

On May 17, it resumed five channels, including Cinemax, AXN SD, Star Movies HD, AXN HD and Fox Sports Plus, saying they had obtained their editing licenses.

Asked why only K+ has blocked foreign broadcasts, Hoang Vinh Bao, director of the Broadcast and Electronic Information Department at the Ministry of Information and Communications, told the Associated Press: "We will carry out inspections to make sure that they all comply with the regulations."

Other major pay-TV service providers, including VCTV, SCTV and HTVC, were unavailable for comment as of press time.

The decision had been delayed twice earlier after it drew considerable flak. It was issued again with several amendments, but the controversy is unlikely to blow over.

The decision was issued for the first time in March 2011. It was set to take effect two months later.

Its requirement that many programs must be localized was slammed as unnecessary and costly.

It called for complete translation of all movies, documentaries and news programs carried by all general, sports, music and entertainment channels. News channels and programs on science and education channels have to be translated partially, the decision said.

In the dark

At a meeting held to discuss the decision last year, representatives of several channels said the translation requirement would delay the real broadcast time, increase costs and reduce their competitiveness.

Some foreign channels said they would have to think twice about continuing to provide their services to local pay TV providers.

The US and other governments, especially those with national broadcasters, reportedly urged Vietnam to abandon or modify the law.

On March 29, Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung signed a directive amending the decision. According to the amendments, full translation into Vietnamese is required only for movies and documentaries broadcast by general, entertainment, sports and music channels. News channels and programs on science and education channels no longer require any translation.

However, provisions on obtaining the editing license remain compulsory to all foreign channels, prompting K+'s decision to stop broadcasting many foreign affiliates.

Following K+'s move, a spokesperson for the Cable & Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA) said "the situation regarding Vietnamese regulations for the pay TV industry are notably unclear."

"Even Vietnamese operators of pay TV systems cannot be sure how the regulations will be implemented, much less international channels," John Medeiros, CASBAA's chief policy officer, said in a statement on May 16.

He said the government has expressed its intention not to exclude international channels from Vietnam and indeed, some changes to translation requirements for news channels were introduced in order to remove operating burdens on them. 

"However, there seem to be roadblocks in implementing this policy. Overall, the licensing regulations on the books remain restrictive in their effects.

"No licenses have been issued to international channels of any genre in the last six months. Contracting requirements for the editing of news channels remain problematic," he said.

The number of pay-TV subscribers in Vietnam increased from 2.5 million in 2010 to 3.7 million in 2011, according to latest figures compiled by the Ministry of Information and Communications.

Vietnam had approximately 20 million TV subscribers in 2011, 13.5 percent of which were pay-TV households, and the industry continues to have huge growth potential. The percentage of pay TV subscribers in Asia is between 40-60 percent.

As of May 2011, Vietnam had a total of 67 networks that managed 899 TV stations broadcast in over 98.9 percent of the country. Television penetration in Vietnam is high with 90.4 percent of all households owning at least one set. 

According to the US Commercial Service in Vietnam, the annual market revenue of pay TV reached US$2 billion in 2011 and is forecast to increase at a compound annual growth rate of 17 percent through 2015.

Last month, the Ministry of Information and Communications allowed the military-owned communication group Viettel to supply cable television in Vietnam.

Given the status quo, Medeiros, the CASBAA's chief policy officer, said he regretted that the effect of the regulatory process as of today seems to "restrict access of numerous international channels to the Vietnam market.

"Consumers everywhere else in Southeast Asia enjoy the opportunity to view a wide mix of domestic and international television, and we hope that the government will see its way clear to allow Vietnamese citizens to join their"¦ neighbors."

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