Licensing of satellite signals serves only selfish interests

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 September, 2007, 12:00am

The pay-TV industry has called for all illicit broadcasting to be made a criminal offence, following a legal settlement last month with local bars over unauthorised feeds of last year's World Cup soccer tournament.

SCMP, Sept 2

Let's assume something truly ridiculous. Let's suppose that one day our government passed a law saying it is illegal for you and me to collect rainwater.

We are not talking here of slipping a pipe into a reservoir where no one can see it and then tapping fresh water without paying water duties. We are talking of holding a bucket to the sky and collecting the rainwater as it falls.

In this ridiculous world, our government has decided to privatise the water business and sell licences for rainwater collection. If you then turn your face to the sky while it is raining and open your mouth, you are depriving the licensees of water sales, which is an offence.

Worse yet, if you collect the rainwater with the bucket and let anyone else have a drink you are guilty of an abhorrent, heinous, dreadful breach of the law. You'll find yourself stung for millions in lawsuits and having to grovel in apology: 'Sorry, sorry, sorry, I didn't know the rain wasn't free.'

Ridiculous, isn't it? Utterly silly notion, yes?

Don't laugh too loud. That bucket is your television set and those laws are real ones in Hong Kong.

In the broadcasting business, it pleases the owners of Thai and South African satellite broadcasting channels to boast as big a 'footprint' for their signals as they possibly can. We can safely assume they do it because it helps their sales pitch to advertisers.

And, obviously, it wouldn't help the sales pitch much if they then limited useful access to their channels by putting software coding into their signals to turn their broadcasts into static buzz.

They might want to do it if their game plan was to make money by leasing you a fancy piece of equipment to unlock the coding but that is not their game plan.

They make their money by selling advertising and they are only too pleased if they can boost their advertising receipts by including Hong Kong in their footprint.

Thus raining down on us from the sky, free and easy for you to pick up if you have a satellite dish, are what television viewers across the world, male ones at least, value even more than pornography - European football broadcasts. Bar owners know it and take obvious advantage of it to boost their turnover.

But somehow, and I can't quite fathom how because my mind just isn't wired for utterly illogical thinking, our government has come to the view that it has the right to prohibit the rain or at least the gathering of it by the public.

It has licensed pay-television operators to have a monopoly on football broadcasts in Hong Kong. The rule is that you may not take advantage of free broadcasts. You must pay the licensees. The Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (Casbaa) now wants to make it a criminal offence if you don't pay.

I am glad to see that I am not the only person to recognise the exceptional gall of this demand. Our report of it in Sunday's paper quoted a spokeswoman for the Commerce and Economic Development Bureau as saying that 'the government needs to balance enforceability, use of public resources and intrusiveness into private activities'.

Exactly. Exclusive licences should never have been issued in the first place. They presume that the licence issuer, the Hong Kong government, owns the electromagnetic spectrum of outer space and has the right and the ability to turn it off at will.

But, having made this mistake, our government will only compound it with a greater mistake if it invades civil liberties by trying to enforce licence restrictions through intrusions on private property and private activities.

Equally offensive is Casbaa's presumption that the public purse should bear the cost of enforcing an unworkable licence arrangement that serves only to enrich Casbaa members.

Not only does Casbaa demand that television audiences contribute more to the profits of its members for watching football but also that, through their taxes, these audiences pay for the additional criminal enforcement costs of making themselves pay more to watch football.

It's a double insult, to my mind up there with charging the family of an executed criminal for the cost of the bullet that killed him.

So let's just get one thing straight. These Casbaa people love to phrase their demands in terms of justice and fair play, but what it comes down to is their own self-interest and nothing else. Their righteous wrath is no more than that of a puppy pulled away from its feeding bowl.

Fair play might lead government to compensate them a little for exclusivity it should never have granted them, but it should certainly not lead government to rule that you cannot turn your face up to the rain.