Taking liberties

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Above: John Malone, philanthropist, after donating US$42.5 million to Colorado State University for regenerative science research. Photo by William A. Cotton/CSU.

BitDepth#1017 for December 01, 2015

The full impact of the buyout of CWC by Liberty Global is still to be properly evaluated, far less assessed, but that’s no reason why I can’t infuriate President Carmona with some rumshop conjecture about what it’s all going to mean. Pull up a barstool.

Will it be allowed?

It’s hard to think of a reason it wouldn’t be or even why the question should arise.  The discussion about foreign ownership of our communications resources consumed most of the last two years and ended with the majority players in the market being Irish and British, respectively.

All that’s really changed on that front is that we’ve traded crumpets for burgers and moved headquarters from Lombard Road in London to Liberty Boulevard in Colorado.

What happens next?

Consolidation. That was already underway with the CWC/Columbus merging of assets and personnel. With Liberty in the mix, expect more shedding.

Normally, this wouldn’t bother me at all, but at least two high profile departures may signal troubling trends.

After the merger, Chris Dehring left CWC and Rhea Yaw Ching moved on from Columbus.

Dehring is a respected Jamaican entrepreneur with a deep knowledge of the region and Yaw Ching championed local content on Flow’s feeds, putting money into GayelleTV and making T&T films available on pay-per-view.

Both were brown nationals of the Caribbean archipelago whose specific and quite relevant talents were quietly lost to the merged entity.

How did this merger happen?

CWC was always upfront about its plans to bulk up and dominate the regional market.

First, they grabbed the best of what was available in the region then they went courting (or did so simultaneously, business is notoriously promiscuous) in international markets.

How will customers benefit?

Costs won’t go down. That model doesn’t exist in the telecommunications sector. But, there is a real possibility that Caribbean broadband and cable television subscribers will actually get more for what they’re currently paying.

For almost a decade, the model for getting foreign programming has been to buy a feed from an affiliate television station and show what they’re showing. This is roughly the same as buying a maxi-taxi on the basis of the passengers it picks up.

Late last year, content producers ordered everyone off the bus, telling affiliate stations, which pay for the content they broadcast to stop sub-licensing content they didn’t create.

That led to this year’s fuss over lost cable channels and the grim realisation that the Caribbean is simply too small for major television channels and cable producers to bother working out a proper licensing model.

But Liberty Global is big, with the type of clout that CWC craved and the brassy John Malone looks like exactly the kind of person who might drive through deals with those diffident producers as part of his larger conversations with them.

This is the guy who owned half of DirecTV in 2009 and recently bought Sirius XM. When he talks, people tend to listen.

So, big win for action movie fans. But Malone is unlikely to give a single hoot about little bubbles of creative potential like the local film and television industry, because, well, big and little.

What happens to local broadcasters?

The wake-up call for local TV broadcasters has been ringing for some time now, this will only make it louder. The golden era for local content on television arose out of necessity. Buying foreign programming was a clumsy, costly process even in the era of U-Matic tapes.

Building a small set and decking it out with chairs and an audience made sense as a way to feed the remorseless appetite of the daily broadcast schedule.

If Liberty’s clout brings bargaining parity to Flow and there’s a trickle down effect to smaller competitors, most local broadcasters will have the nightly news and morning show and that’s it.

After everyone can access their cable TV on their phones and tablets, local broadcast channels will begin to look irrelevant, not to mention unattractive.

Every other broadcast station, even affiliates in the US, which are basically franchises of either CBS, NBC or ABC, realised long ago that they needed to create regionally relevant programming that they could upsell to other markets.

Few have been successful at placing content in the wider marketplace, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. I’m not sure T&T would know where to begin.