Vietnam reprieves foreign TV channels – for the moment

Government gives them more time to find local partner who will edit and translate content, and some channels like CNN that had gone off the air are back
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An antenna dish for K+ is displayed for sale in front of a store in downtown Hanoi on May 17, 2013. The Vietnamese government has told cable operators that for an unspecified ‘interim period,’ while the foreign channels are working out arrangements, they do not have to take any channel off the air. PHOTO: AFP

Foreign television channels are back on the air after the government relaxed a deadline for them to acquire a local partner with an “editing” license under a new regulation that took effect last month.

Cable operator K+, a joint venture between a Vietnamese company and France’s Canal+ group, cut 21 foreign channels, including the BBC and CNN, that had failed to fulfill the requirement by the May 15 deadline.

However, the government stepped in after an outcry against the “confusing” law, including criticism by foreign governments that the country was tightening the screws on foreign businesses at a time when its economy has slowed.

The controversy began in March 2011 when the government issued Decision 20 stating that foreign channels, including news channels, can only broadcast in Vietnam if they have their contents translated and edited by a local TV operator with an editing and subtitling license.

The regulation was meant to ensure foreign channels’ contents meet “people’s healthy needs” and conform to the country’s media laws.

The government finalized the provisions and announced in June 2012 that the deadline for tying up with a local partner would be November that year.

But the translation stipulation drew flak, especially from news channels, who said it would be “costly” and “infeasible.”

“These requirements add significant costs for foreign channels, especially budget channels, to enter and/or stay in the Vietnam market,” the Cable & Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia said in a report last year.

“For news channels, which depend heavily on live content, the burdens are particularly onerous,” it said.

At a conference aimed at reviewing the issue last November the translation requirement topped the agenda, with attendants questioning its workability.

By then only 16 foreign channels, mostly entertainment channels, had acquired a local partner with a license, while 59 others, including CNN, the BBC, and Star World, had not and faced the risk of going off the air.

Media reports about the conference galvanized pay-TV subscribers – there are around four million pay-TV subscribers who increasingly prefer foreign to domestic channels – into protesting, prompting authorities to change tack.

The government extended the deadline by six months.

But in apparently another concession to public pressure, the government in late March issued Decision 18 – news channels no longer had to carry Vietnamese subtitles.

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Foreign channels then had another month and a half, until May 15, to sign a deal with a licensed local partner.

But the international channels claimed there was too little time and that the new law “confused” them.

“Nobody knew what to do,” John Medeiros, chief policy officer at the Cable & Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia, said.

“[It] came so late that there was no time for the news channels to have discussions with their [Vietnamese] commercial partners and then apply for the editing licenses.

Resolved

“[But] I think it is fair to say the confusion is now over,” Medeiros told Vietweek.

“The Vietnamese government made it clear that it did not want to see foreign TV channels dropped from the country’s pay-TV systems.”

The government has told cable operators that for an unspecified “interim period,” while the foreign channels are working out arrangements, they do not have to take any channel off the air.

A number of major cable operators confirmed to Vietweek that they would continue to show all international channels.

The BBC and CNN, which went off the air for six days last month, declined to tell Vietweek if they have completed the task.

But insiders said they are convinced the storm has blown over because “quite a number” of editing licenses have been issued.

“I hear positive reactions from the news channels,” Medeiros said.

“We are optimistic that the news channels will work out their necessary commercial arrangements and that the entertainment channels’ licensing process will continue in an orderly way.”

Alissa Rooney, head of communications with BBC Global News Limited, said the channel is “in continued discussions with Vietnamese authorities on the matter.”

A Hong Kong-based CNN spokesman said the channel is “pleased… [to] be able to continue operating in Vietnam.

“We welcome policies that grant market access and unfettered trade and encourage a long-term commitment to these principles,” he said, declining to be named.

In chaos

The US and other governments, especially those with national broadcasters, have been urging Vietnam to amend the law, according to the Associated Press.

“We know that the international community is watching. Frankly, the Vietnamese government is getting some bad press [because of this],” Medeiros said.

Critics have likened the license-granting process to increased “censorship” in Vietnam, charges Vietnamese authorities have bristled at.

“It’s just not right to call it censorship,” Trinh Long Vu, chief editor of the pay TV department at Vietnam Television, said.

“This is a government policy to better manage foreign channels [in Vietnam]. It has been chaotic,” Vu told Vietweek.

The number of pay-TV subscribers in Vietnam increased from 2.5 million in 2010 to 3.7 million in 2011, according to latest figures compiled by the Ministry of Information and Communications.

In Vietnam, 13.5 percent of all households have cable TV, according to the ministry, and the industry continues to have huge growth potential. The percentage of pay TV subscribers in Asia is 40-60 percent.

Television penetration in Vietnam is high with 90.4 percent of households having at least one set. The country has a population of 90 million.

According to the US Commercial Service in Vietnam, the annual market revenue of pay TV was US$2 billion in 2011 and is forecast to grow at a compounded annual rate of 17 percent through 2015.

Last month the Ministry of Information and Communications allowed the military-owned Viettel to enter the cable TV market, a move that analysts say is likely to increase competition in the dog-eat-dog cable TV market.

Vu, the VTV editor, said the issue of editing licenses is being done gradually and was only “a matter of procedure.”

Critics have also panned the usual 30-minute delay in broadcasts by international channels in Vietnam but Vu defended it saying it was a “technical issue.”

But the bottom line is “we have the right to watch [foreign channels]. That’s a reality that happens not only in Vietnam.”

China and Malaysia also require local companies that receive or transmit signals from foreign channels to make sure the contents conform to local laws.

“Vietnam looks more like that,” Medeiros said. “I think that’s one reason why Vietnam is moving in the right direction.”

Vietnamese TV operators are working with VTV and Vietnam News Agency to edit the content of all foreign channels, said Hoang Vinh Bao, director of the Ministry of Information and Communications’ broadcast and television department.

“It is those local companies that will ensure that appropriate content from foreign channels is broadcast in Vietnam,” he told Vietweek.

But he declined to elaborate on what he meant by “appropriate content.”

“That’s a sensitive question,” he said.

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