Time for S’porean telcos to stop scoring own goals

The China Post

The recently ended World Cup will live on in the memories of Singapore football fans, but probably for the wrong reasons.

In years to come, we will have forgotten the incessant droning of the vuvuzelas, the various refereeing mistakes or even which country finished third.

What we will remember, however, is how 2010 marked the time football broadcasts in Singapore took a turn for the worse.

This was the year Singaporeans nearly missed out on watching the World Cup, arguably the most important TV show there is.

The impasse between football’s governing body FIFA, and Singapore’s StarHub and SingTel over broadcast rights, was broken just a month before the competition was to start.

But fans’ relief soon turned to anger when the telcos announced that it would cost at least SG$70 (US$50) to watch the games, a seven-fold increase from the 2006 World Cup.

The price was high compared to what neighboring countries were charging.

Indonesians and Malaysians got their World Cup free. The Japanese paid the equivalent of SG$9.20; Indians, SG$7.70.

Hundreds of Singaporeans took to Speakers’ Corner to protest. Others simply boycotted the coverage.

It used to be that one could figure out that a World Cup match was on by simply taking a stroll along the corridor of any HDB block. The whole block would come alive with cheers every time a goal was scored.

This time around, most blocks were silent. A Straits Times poll of 625 HDB households found that only 37, or 6 percent, had signed up.

And those who did cough up the money were left frustrated. Coverage was no-frills, and from just one channel most of the time. Analysis was minimal. Post-match interviews with players and coaches were left untranslated.

Across the causeway, cable subscribers got four channels, match highlights, repeat telecasts, and Cup-related news.

For football fans who had taken for granted that the World Cup would always be accessible, it was a rude awakening.

To date, both telcos have offered little by way of explanation. Perhaps they did not want to say too much while nerves were still raw.

But now, with the World Cup over, it could be a good time for a cool, reasoned look at what happened, and for the telcos to try to regain some goodwill.

Among football fans, there is a real sense that a sea change took place in the past year.

The speculation is that the fierce competition for market share between the two telcos benefited neither of them, hurt the consumer, and resulted in Fifa laughing its way to the bank.

The Government’s move in March to force carriers to share their exclusive content can be seen as recognition of the danger of this trend becoming entrenched in future.

But has the damage already been done?

It may very well be that the deal signed with Fifa this year has set the floor price for all future World Cup deals. From here it can only go up. It may also be possible that the owners of the broadcasting right to other sports events may use the Fifa deal as a benchmark to demand more.

The Singapore football fan, though, knows nothing about all this because the telcos have revealed nothing.

If the telcos are hoping that Singaporeans will eventually forget about this matter, they are going to be disappointed. Questions — and suspicions — will surface every time the telcos raise the price of sports packages.

But there is hope yet for SingTel and StarHub, if they are prepared to take a leaf from the DBS book.

Two weeks ago, on July 5, the bank suffered a major computer failure which crippled its online banking system and ATMs. That Monday morning, DBS customers could not withdraw money, do online transactions or even buy something with Nets.

A week later, DBS issued an apology after investigating the failure thoroughly. It took responsibility for the breakdown and explained how and why it happened. It also spelt out what it would do to prevent something like this from happening again.

While DBS’ response was by no means perfect — many felt it did not communicate enough in the immediate aftermath of the breakdown — the sincere wording of its apology went over well.

Words like “we could have done more”, “please accept my apologies”, “doing everything we can to prevent an incident of this scale from happening again”, combined with a full explanation of what happened, went far towards soothing angry customers. Most applauded the bank for its apology.

The message for StarHub and SingTel is that there is real value in being upfront with customers.

The telcos had previously asked customers for their understanding on the World Cup prices, but the request sounded hollow because they offered no explanation for the high prices. Given how little customers knew, there was precious little for them to understand.

But it’s not too late for them to correct matters, provided they do it sincerely. For instance, they might want to consider sending a letter to customers explaining in detail what happened with the World Cup rights, and what they are doing to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

They could also release figures showing how much money they lost — if any — by bringing in the World Cup.

For many football fans, this is an important crossroad. Next month, the new English Premier League season begins, and it is the first time it will be on SingTel. At the same time, there remain other leagues and other sports on StarHub.

What customers sitting on the sidelines do next — get both SingTel and StarHub, jump ship or get used to life without football — may very well be influenced by the telcos’ next move.


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