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Friday, February 13, 1998 Published at 15:57 GMT



World: Monitoring

Can Europe manage its digital TV giants?

The British Government announced this week that a date is to be set when all analogue TV transmissions will be switched off and replaced with digital. An independent report commissioned by the government said most TV viewers could be expected to have made the switch to digital by 2013. In Europe, meanwhile, recent alliances in the digital pay-TV market are coming under the scrutiny of the European Commission, which is anxious to prevent the emergence of national monopolies. Morand Fachot, of BBC Monitoring's Foreign Media Unit, reports:

Launched amidst a great deal of media attention in 1995, European digital television had a rather slow start and initially failed to meet the public's expectations. But the past year has seen an explosion of new services.

At the same time, recent alliances in the sector have led the European Commission to take a closer look at the operations of some of Europe's leading digital pay-TV services in an attempt to prevent the emergence of national monopolies.

The main benefit of digital technology is its ability to broadcast several channels on the same bandwidth enabling operators to market a large number of pay-TV services at greatly reduced distribution costs.

Access to the growing offering of digital channels requires a cable connection or satellite reception and a decoder. As only around a third of European households are now connected to either cable or satellite, the growth potential is vast.

Digital TV is a lucrative market but initial costs are high and European operators have been driven to join forces. A number of international alliances were concluded in the past two years, but they quickly dissolved. With the notable exception of France's Canal+, the general trend now is for pay-TV operators to concentrate on home markets:

  • In Germany the two media giants - and erstwhile arch-rivals - KirchGruppe and Bertelsmann AG reached a comprehensive agreement last year for the adoption of Kirch's d-box decoder as "a set-top box for Germany" and the merger of their DF1 and Premiere pay-TV companies into a new joint Premiere digital TV operation.

    Between them the two groups already account for 90 per cent of German TV advertising revenue and rivals fear that their financial might would give them an overwhelming advantage in the purchase of sports and film rights. Kirch's purchase, in 1996, of the TV rights for the 2002 and 2006 Football World Cup finals for 1.9bn dollars provided evidence of that power. These fears are shared by Germany's cartel office and the EU Commission, which is now investigating the deal and is expected to take a decision within four months.

  • In France the digital TV market is shared between three services:

    CanalSatellite, the digital venture of the well-established pay-TV operator Canal+, now has some 750,000 subscribers. It hopes to pass the 1m mark this year and break even in 1999. Canal+ has some 5.4m subscribers to its analogue and digital services in France, and is also rapidly expanding its activities in Europe and Africa where it already has more than 4m subscribers;

    TPS, a joint venture between France Television, the private TF1 and M6 channels and other investors, had 340,000 subscribers at the end of 1997, twice the number originally forecast, and hopes to break even by 2001;

    AB Sat, a smaller private operator, has around some 20,000 subscribers. Doubts surround the ability of the French market to support three competing digital TV services using incompatible decoders. The initial success of the TPS package has led Canal+ officials to moot the idea of a CanalSatellite-TPS merger which would bring about substantial savings for both operators. The idea was quickly dismissed by the TPS chairman.

    The caution surrounding the CanalSatellite-TPS merger issue has a great deal to do with the current European Commission's probe into the Kirch-Bertelsmann joint venture and the Commission's concern regarding BIB's dominant position in the British pay-TV market.

The situation in the UK is also being watched carefully by the EU Commission. The British Interactive Broadcasting (BIB) digital TV operation, combining BSkyB - the UK's only pay-TV operator - British Telecom and other investors, is planning to launch in June.

The EU Competition Commissioner, Karel Van Miert, has expressed concern regarding the dominant position of the companies concerned and of BSkyB's access to subsidized decoders when it launches its 200-channel service in June 1998.

BBC Monitoring (http://www.monitor.bbc.co.uk), based in Caversham in southern England, selects and translates information from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages.
 





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