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Pay-TV booms as cash-strapped Greeks shun depressing news shows

Eleni Chrepa

Panagiota Fotou is so fed up with bad news on Greek free television that she’s willing to pay for programs that help her forget about her country’s economic woes.

The 29-year-old full-time homemaker spends about 70 euros ($95.35) a month, the equivalent of 12 percent of the minimum monthly wage in Greece, for pay TV, telephone and Internet services at a moment in which the economic crisis has left one in three people without a job and consumer spending stagnating. Fotou prefers watching movies, crime shows and situation comedies on Forthnet SA’s Nova TV, which is part of the bundle.

“People are tired of crisis-related bulletins,” says Fotou, flicking through channels at her Athens apartment. “Pay- TV may be an extra expense, but the deals are tempting.”

Greeks like Fotou are contributing to what the country’s two biggest telecom service providers Hellenic Telecommunications Organization SA and Forthnet say is a doubling of subscribers to combined TV and online packages in the past two years. The increase comes even as unemployment climbed to 27 percent and retail sales plunged for a fourth consecutive year.

Earlier this month, Hellenic Telecom, also known as OTE, offered as much as 300 million euros for the Nova pay-TV unit of Forthnet, its main competitor in Greece. Forthnet’s board is weighing the offer, the company said on July 1. Hellenic Telecom, 40 percent owned by Germany’s Deutsche Telekom AG, said its offer is on a debt-free, cash-free basis and Greek regulators would have to approve any deal.

OTE had 280,000 subscribers during the first quarter of 2014, according to OTE and Forthnet estimates. A takeover of Nova would make OTE the top player, overtaking Forthnet.

Monopoly Watch

With a deal, OTE “would become the sole pay-TV operator in the Greek market,” IBG Research analyst Dimitris Birbos wrote in a note on July 2. “The telecom watchdog could possibly block a deal that will create a monopolistic status.”

The number of Greek pay-TV subscribers stands at 760,000, up from about 300,000 at the end of 2012, according to estimates by Hellenic Telecom and Forthnet. This gives a market penetration of 19.5 percent, after it had been stuck at between 11 percent to 13 percent for nearly 10 years.

The bundled-services trend confirms “an international trend for saturation in the traditional telecommunications service,” Forthnet Chief Executive Officer Panos Papadopoulos told Bloomberg in an e-mailed response to questions on July 3.

Vodafone Option

Nova’s subscriber base rose 6.7 percent in the first quarter, reaching 482,433, compared with 452,340 subscribers at the end of 2013, the company’s figures show.

Emirates International Telecommunications LLC has a 44 percent stake in Forthnet, which has a market value of 175 million euros, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

In addition to the bid from OTE, the company has also drawn interest from Vodafone Group Plc, which holds 6.5 percent and on June 4 agreed a deal with Wind Hellas Telecommunications SA, owner of 13 percent in Forthnet, on an option to raise its stake to nearly 20 percent. The option is exercisable one year after the date of the agreement, Forthnet said on June 10.

The moves around Nova reflect global industry trends, with telecommunications companies broadening offerings to clients by moving into television. Vodafone teamed up with Netflix Inc. in May to offer subscriptions to streamed movies and TV shows. AT&T Inc., operator of TV and broadband business U-verse, on May 18 announced a $48.5 billion purchase of DirecTV.

Cheap Quality

Meanwhile viewers such as Panagiota Fotou are looking for television that is both cheap and good quality.

“I can’t stand the traditional Greek TV shows,” says Fotou, holding her two-year-old son in her arms. “They are full of ridiculous people, half-naked women and can’t even make you laugh. Pay-TV gives you the option to choose what you’re going to see and where you’re going to see it. On your TV, laptop, tablet or mobile.”

The Greek crisis has boosted demand for more specialized, on demand TV products, George Pleios, a communications professor at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, said in a telephone interview on July 11.

The economic crisis, which has cost Greece a quarter of its gross domestic product, “has greatly reduced the consumption potential of Greeks, including outdoor cultural products, visits to theaters, cinemas, even travel,” he said. At the same time, “reduced quality of the program of TV stations and the shutdown of the state broadcaster led to a general depreciation of the TV field.”

Saving Money

While the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund forecast the Greek economy will return to growth this year, the high level of unemployment still leaves a lot of Greeks looking for ways to enjoy themselves at home to save money, even if that means paying for TV.

“Instead of going out to watch a soccer game at a cafe, we gather at home, cook and bring our own beer,” said Tasos Prigkouris, a 39 year-old self-employed subscriber of both Forthnet and Hellenic Telecom pay-TV services. “It’s a lot cheaper than going out and the deals that providers offer these days make it a lot easier.”

[Bloomberg]

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