CASBAA's war on sports bars

The Cable And Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia (CASBAA) has been making a point lately of sending out strongly worded press releases denouncing the practice of bars and restaurants showing live sports broadcasts on pay-TV channels. For example, with the Rugby World Cup under way, CASBAA has been warning bar owners that if they set up a TV and a set-top box so that customers can watch the game and they haven't paid the appropriate fees, they are thieving pirates that are costing the regional pay-TV industry at least $1.1 billion a year.


Which is fine, except that as resident satellite guy, I have colleagues coming up to me and asking me, "Dude, what's up with CASBAA‾ Are they just obsessed with cable piracy or what‾ I mean, sports bars‾ What's up with that‾"


I was afraid this might happen. Ever since CASBAA released their first official study on pay-TV piracy three years ago, the rhetoric on the scope of the issue has become increasingly urgent, and if you've kept up with the rise of digital media, it's hard not to see the parallel between CASBAA's tough zero-tolerance stance on piracy and the similar war on piracy declared by the music and film industry associations. And with the next annual CASBAA forum coming up next month - which is usually when CASBAA also releases its newest piracy findings - the rhetoric is bound to be even more urgent than last year.


Before we go further, let me be clear about this up front. I'm not saying that CASBAA isn't entitled to fight piracy or wrong to promote the issue as widely as possible. Indeed, I agree with CASBAA president Simon Twiston-Davies that education is half the battle in many cases. Certainly the average pub owner isn't going to see the harm in letting customers watch content that has, technically, already been paid for unless you explain why this is illegal, and the legal options and procedures for providing the same entertainment legally.


I just worry that CASBAA is, from a PR standpoint, unintentionally lumping itself into the same category as the IFPI and the MPAA. Both industry bodies have asserted their legal right to protect their intellectual property, and both have generated little sympathy from anyone outside their inner circle. Their tough talk and eagerness to make examples of people has earned them reputations (unfairly or not) as corporate bullies who have grossly overstated the problem and are taking it out on their own customers. And, by the way, illegal downloading still hasn't stopped.


CASBAA has deliberately (and wisely) avoided targeting end users, which would be the strategic equivalent of shooting itself in the foot. And its figures on piracy losses have, if anything, been conservative. It also helps that, with most forms of pay-TV piracy, it's possible to make a case that the money lost is money that would have been earned if not for piracy (as opposed to the IFPI making the fatuous assumption that people who download music from P2P sites would have surely paid full price for the same music if only it hadn't been available on eDonkey).



That said, when you consider that the majority of pay-TV piracy losses in Asia originate from one country, India (and that those are largely due to the idiosyncratic ad-hoc history of its cable market), CASBAA isn't doing itself any favors by appearing to blame owners of Hong Kong sports bars.


Which isn't to say it's not a problem. But in terms of gaining public support, it must be a thankless task making public statements that those sports games you love watching in the local restaurant or bar are illegal. Let's face it - it's hard to tell people that they're technically accessories to theft without coming across like a killjoy.


The problem, I suspect, is that piracy appears to be the only thing CASBAA ever wants to talk about, as if it's the #1 issue facing the pay-TV/satellite industry. You'd never know from CASBAA's press statements in the last two months that it's been tackling more crucial issues, like encouraging governments to adopt Open Skies policies, and highlighting the potential dangers of issuing WiMAX licenses in the extended C-band spectrum.


Sure, CASBAA has been directing those energies to the proper audience - to the regulators and ministries. The point is that those sorts of issues are winnable and fixable in the long run. Media piracy, by contrast, will always exist, and while that's no excuse to not fight it, it's far more likely to be mitigated by technological solutions, competition and - India's case - structural reform than it is by demonizing unlicensed bar broadcasts.


At the very least, CASBAA should do more to promote its other causes and issues, just to show that it really does care about finding solutions to lots of other issues and isn't just obsessed with rugby fans copping free games off sports bars. It's small consolation being right when no one respects you for it.