Pay TV’s Greek paradox

When the state monopoly of Greek television broke in 1989, foreign experts rushed to suggest that small markets such as Greece could only have one or two healthy private national channels. Yet after more than 15 years of multichannel TV in Greece, that forecast seems to be holding true only for pay TV. Quite surprisingly, the story is very different in Cyprus. Multichoice, the South African owners of Netmed Hellas, enjoys a monopoly in Greek subscription-based TV with Nova, the sole digital satellite platform broadcasting from Greece. In the six years of its lifetime, Nova has built up a healthy clientele of over 220,000 households which, combined with about 80,000 analogue subscribers to the encrypted transmissions of Netmed (Filmnet, Supersport 1 and Jetix), exceeds the 300,000 figure. The only other platform to have entered the market was Alpha Digital, which went out with a bang in 2002, falling victim to the temporary overvaluation of soccer rights, and also overestimating the market’s potential. In a recent interview, Lambis Tagmatarchis, Nova’s CEO, explained why Greece can only afford one platform, arguing that expenses for each are the same whether in the UK, France, Italy or Greece. «It’s just that the market is much smaller here,» he said. However, critics point out that most European countries may have pay-TV monopolies but are more popular, adding that Nova is pricey and inflexible, having no sub-packages of individual channels to offer – it’s all or nothing. «Nova of Greece is the most expensive platform in Europe for what it has on offer,» London-based satellite TV expert Andrew Adams asserted. He added that Greece’s 9 percent digital TV penetration is one of the lowest in Europe and that is mostly due to Nova’s monopoly. At virtually no extra cost, Nova has also branched out to Cyprus in the last 12 months, again relying on Multichoice’s encrypted-terrestrial-channel subscriber base (LTV and Alfa TV). To date, Multichoice has over 60,000 subscribers in Cyprus, although the bulk of these still subscribe to the terrestrial analogue service. This is one of the highest market penetrations in the world. And yet it is not a monopoly. Nova Cyprus rushed to go on the air last July ahead of two cable TV platforms: MiVision, owned by the Cyprus Telecoms Authority, and Cablenet, owned by the Cyprus Electricity Authority, have been launched since, offering a variety of services, and rivaling Nova only to some extent. Yet the launch of Athina Sat, a Cyprus-owned digital satellite platform this month, the first Greek-language one on Hellas Sat, has caused quite a stir, being a local David against a multinational Goliath. Some market observers have already written it off, but its CEO Sofia Georgalla remains positive. She told Kathimerini English Edition that it was always going to be a difficult proposition, «but we know what we are doing,» she stressed defensively. «There are not many investors to make an effort such as ours. But we believe in it so we are going ahead with it,» said Georgalla. The main advantage of Athina Sat lies in what Nova has refused to turn to – channel packages. Further, in addition to the usual diet of international news, sports, films and documentary channels, the platform will contain four exclusive channels: a 24-hour Greek film channel, a Greek music channel promoting Cypriot talent, and a current affairs channel. Its children’s channel will feature local youngsters, too. Interestingly, the platform also includes Cyprus’s most popular private network, Sigma, which has also been advertised as a one-channel package, aimed at those who cannot receive it terrestrially or live far away. This has always been a core target for satellite platforms, including Nova Greece. Georgalla said that Athina Sat will propose to Cyprus’s other major private networks, Antenna and Mega, that they join Athina Sat, while the two state terrestrial channels, RIK 1 and 2, seem to have an agreement with Nova Cyprus, she added. Few platforms have survived across Europe without domestic soccer rights. In Cyprus, Nova and MiVision fought last year, often bitterly, for Cypriot league rights and shared them, but Athina Sat begs to differ: «There are another 200,000 households in Cyprus that do not want soccer. We are targeting them,» Georgalla suggested, but not everyone will be convinced. The initial response to Athina Sat appears mixed for the time being. «We are satisfied with the response so far,» said Georgalla, but she was quick to point out that, «at the moment, we are revising our pricing policy.» Multichoice will be watching closely, for sure. When at a recent press conference Nova Greece’s Tagmatarchis was asked about introducing channel packages he gave the same answer as three years ago: «We are studying that, too.» The paradox of Greece’s monopoly market against Cyprus’s multi-platform competition can be explained by the much higher penetration digital TV has already enjoyed in this new EU member and by the much greater free-to-air terrestrial offering in Greece. When in a few years’ time Brussels forces all countries to switch from analogue TV to digital, Greece will be a laggard, while Cyprus will be better prepared.

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