The Asia Pacific PayTV Operator Summit takes place in Bali in late April. Set at the former Ritz, recently renamed because of a property dispute, this is not a gathering to be missed by television execs whose wives for once do not mind coming along. Some of the key industry people in the region turn up for the event, and the two-day conference is packed with cleverly titled sessions, positive but with a reflective twist: “The Fragility of Growth”, “Gatekeepers to Digital Noise”, or “Digital Deliverance”.
The conference starts on an upbeat note, with speakers happily talking of growth and sharing tips for success, while the audience savors the good news with free refreshments, sponsored lunches and daily surprise gifts in the rooms. (One such gift – an HBO-branded suitcase–scared the sh***t out of most delegates. Having discovered it in their room they alternatively thought it was 1. a bomb, 2. not their room, 3. an industry girl-friend not realizing he was there with his wife). And so the guests are fed and entertained from morning to dawn, including the priceless sight of a local network boss karaokeing “My Way” and a Top-Chef finalist making their dinner.
Unlike stingy European industry events, held in halogen-lit venues of gloomy London hotels, this particular summit is literally over the top… yet, if you ask me, not nearly enough.
Over the Top, you see, is the issue that should be the main concern of PayTV industry. To put it simply: PayTV operator charges consumers for premium TV channels and his key business advantage is his control of the gateway. The operator decides which channels the consumer can and cannot get. Because his offer has to stay competitive, he must lure the consumer in with a basic (free) bouquet of channels. Recently he had to add other “goodies” like Internet connectivity. This simple “added-value”, which was supposed to increase his ARPU, might become his downfall: now the customer can buy a SmartTV, connect it to the Internet, and get the same premium content – channels and on demand – directly via the TV set, bypassing the operator’s gateway altogether.
By early afternoon, the sweet and drowsy Bali air pulls you gently into frangipani-scented sleep – but there is no rest for the wired. The 100 plus TV execs huddle over their iPhones and Blackberries – Blackberries mostly, for this is Asia – oblivious to what’s happening in the conference room or the sunlit bar. Their faces have turned red from the Molotov cocktail of free drinks and the sun, and the suits are beginning to show signs of what’s locally known as “Bali Belly” – a fried food phenomenon that makes beer belly look like a six-pack. A flurry of SMS sends some scurrying off to the lobby where Miss World has been sighted on her way to get airbrushed for this evening’s gala. The wives drift by, awkwardly wrapped in complementary sarongs, credit cards leading them like a compass to the overpriced shops by the pool.
So what’s the catch, you might ask? Where does the Pay TV industry find the money to pay for this extravaganza? Where does it find the guts to pretend like all is rosy and happy in the world where YouTube is slowly gobbling up its viewers and where subscriber fees, if any, need to include everything from free internet and phone to a selection of channels so large that paying for additional ones would be absurd? Is there future for PayTV or shall we just get smashed on more mojitos and cover up our ears as some American Idol finalist belts out a Whitney Huston cover?
A Balinese saying goes: “Many people will gather in the shade of a large tree.“ PayTV industry today is such a tree, nourishing a growing variety of channels who live on “cents per subscriber” and occasional advertising. Perhaps through gathering at such conventions they will figure out a way to stay in the shade even as the sun moves on – but I highly recommend they make their next convention truly over the top.