Going after Android set-top boxes won’t bring back viewers for pay-TV players


It isn’t surprising that pay-TV and content players have taken two Android TV box sellers in Singapore to court this week. 

Neither is the piracy they have alleged that these boxes could enable, through streaming apps delivered on the hardware. What’s hard to understand is their purpose for doing so.

Yes, they are sending a message to box sellers and consumers alike. On the surface, at least, they seem to be asking the courts to take a stronger stand against such streaming boxes, which do not unscramble the signals from StarHub or Singtel and are thus seen by many to be okay to use.

Yes, this highly-publicised case could slow the sales of similar boxes and more importantly, the contentious streaming apps, if the rights owners – StarHub, Singtel, Fox and the folks behind the English Premier League (EPL) – get their way.

And yes, by going after box sellers Synnex Trading and An-Nahl, and their directors, through a private prosecution, the rights owners are saying they mean business.

A private prosecution, initiated by private parties instead of the police, brings stiff penalties, including a jail term, if a defendant is found guilty. Copyright owners sometimes prefer this to simply suing someone and getting monetary compensation.

Still, the question remains. What is the ideal scenario that could play out for the content folks? An eradication of a source of piracy? More people going back to pay-TV subscriptions?

If you look carefully at the charges brought forward, they have more to do with the copying of copyrighted content, rather than the streaming of it.

Will a ruling change the legality of such streaming boxes, if a person only streams and doesn’t make a copy of, say, a telecast of a football match? That’s not clear.

Perhaps more importantly, how does this court case change things for the pay-TV providers here? Will they get a boost in revenue?

The situation certainly looks grim for both StarHub and Singtel, because pay-TV customers have been returning their set-top boxes and cut the cord. But many people are doing so not because they’ve suddenly found a pirated Android box.

They have found Netflix, Amazon Prime, Viu and many better-priced streaming options online. These services are legit and offer a better experience.

A Netflix subscription starts from S$10.98 in Singapore – that’s roughly what you pay to rent a cable set-top box from StarHub.

Not only does it have thousands of shows to choose from, its interactive features are miles ahead of similar options offered by StarHub or Singtel.

That’s not to mention the free programmes available on other channels such as YouTube. No, not the pirated versions of stuff you find sometimes, but original content made by independent creators enabled by the video sharing platform.

If you wish to catch up on the latest in Japanese food, for example, lots of online video channels will provide well-made guides on where to get your ramen, sushi and tempura. There’s a lot of legit stuff to watch after cutting the cord.

This is the real reason why StarHub and Singtel are hit by falling numbers. For the third quarter of 2017, StarHub saw its pay-TV base drop by 40,000 from a year ago. Revenue fell by 9 per cent.

Singtel has fared better but still lost ground. It lost 16,000 customers over a year, according to its latest annual report in 2017.

Though its revenue has been growing slightly in the past year, some of this is through sub-license deals for its content. This has to go towards paying for the millions it already spent to acquire EPL broadcast rights earlier.

How will going after Android boxes bring people back to the fold? If you asked anyone who’s cut the cord or never even gone on traditional pay-TV, there’s simply no going back to the bad, old set-top boxes.

Yes, there are streaming services from StarHub and Singtel too, but they do not enjoy the monopolies they used to enjoy with pay-TV in the past. They are now just one of many options available to users today.

The biggest problem for pay-TV players isn’t piracy – it’s the sheer amount of content out there. People are no longer “funnelled” into watching pay-TV programmes.

Gone are the days when content owners divided the globe into various markets, then sold the content to pay-TV operators, who in turn sold it in packages to users who had few other options. Control the limited amount of pirate options and you maximise your profit.

You can’t do that today, as we know. Game of Thrones, probably the most pirated content online, came to people’s computers and TVs faster than their TV operator at times. The solution has to be a better experience for users, at a price they will pay.

Some, like HBO, which owns Game of Thrones, have seen the light. Its shows are now available on an app – though still on StarHub – that you can stream on any device. It costs S$19.90 a month and you don’t need a set-top box or to subscribe to other channels you don’t want.

It’s interesting that among the four parties against the Android boxes this week, there are only two content owners in Fox and the EPL folks. It’s unclear why many others, say, HBO, haven’t joined the cause.

Perhaps it’s the realisation that this is not their fight. An Android box is just a box – you can stream a pirated video or you can watch StarHub’s or HBO’s streaming service on it.

Going after such boxes may grab you headlines, send a message, but winning over users? You don’t do that by fighting them.

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