For 17 year-old Zhou Yong, watching English Premiership football matches on Saturday nights was the single high point of the week. No more homework – just 90 minutes of pure joy.
Sadly, this came to and end in August when the plug was pulled on free-to-air broadcasts of the game in China. The rights to Premiership matches, which had been shown on ESPN since 2001, were bought by Tiansheng TV, also known as WinTV. The station, which is run by state-owned Guangdong Provincial Television, paid US$50 million for a three-season deal.
Instead of selling ads, WinTV has opted for an ad-free subscription-based model, whereby users have to buy a set-top box and pay fees of US$80 a year.
“The free lunch is over,” said Song Zheng, CEO of WinTV, introducing the new package. “Let’s overcome all the difficulties and embrace a bright future of China’s pay channels!”
In a country where average per capita GDP came to US$1,400 last year, US$80 is beyond the means of many football fans. Bars, which will now have to shell out US$500 for a commercial subscription to screen matches, may also be frightened away. Even then, those who are willing to pay have to rely on their local cable operators picking up WinTV. For operators used to strong ad revenues, the prospect of carrying an ad-free pay channel might not make economic sense.
The end result may be that fans turn away from the English game. A poll by online portal Sina.com found 55% of respondents would turn to other football leagues with only 5% willing to pay for Premiership access. Some bloggers are calling for a boycott of WinTV in protest.
There may, however, be another answer: Watch the games online.
There are dozens of Chinese video-sharing sites – most of which come with downloadable client software – offering free access to a wide variety of content, including sports channels.
“The picture is mostly consistent with only occasional lags and blurs. But that’s fine with me as long as it’s live and free,” said Zhou. “The only problem is there’s no Chinese-language commentary. Sometimes I get English, sometimes Cantonese or even Thai.”
Nevertheless, these services are thriving. According to Highland, an institutional investor in video-sharing site Uusee, the site had 36 million subscribers by March 2007, making it the biggest in China. Venture capital players Draper Fisher Jurveston and Sequoia also have stakes in Chinese video streaming services or web-based television.
Obviously there are legal issues involved. This type of peer-to-peer video streaming operates on the basis that it’s up to the user to abide by the copyright. Unsurprisingly, many are happy to ignore it and it is difficult to police abuses of the system.
Despite concerns about the legitimate nature of its content, web TV has gained momentum as it offers access to content that might not be approved by the censors for broadcast on mainstream television. In this way web TV’s growing popularity reflects the – perhaps irreversible – push in China to expand the ownership of information.
“Even if they charge a few yuan for each match, like some already do by partnering with WinTV, I’ll be glad to pay as it’s pay-per-view,” said Zhou.
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