Relaxing whilst doing Competition Law is not an Oxymoron

Regulating TV markets to protect BT? Not again, Ofcom. Please

with 3 comments


Many of you will have read the headlines about the recent auction organised by the Premier League. A couple of weeks ago, Sky and BT paid a record sum of £5.1bn (up from £3bn in 2012) for the TV rights to three seasons of the top English football championship (2016-17 to 2018-19). Sky secured the majority of the rights (126 matches per season out of a total of 168).

Victory for Sky? I am not convinced, and given the behaviour of Sky’s shares the day after the deal was announced, it would seem that I am not alone. In fact, the deal seems to have strengthened BT’s position. Unlike Sky, the incumbent telecommunications operator in the UK had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, in the process. Just consider the aftermath of the auction. BT has managed to force Sky, a major competitor, to pay an unprecedented amount for premium sports content (thereby harming its profitability), without fearing the consequences of not securing the rights in question. Why not? In 2010, Sky was required to supply its sports channels to its competitors. As a result, BT was confident that it would be able to offer top football to its subscribers irrespective of the outcome of the auction.

An analysis of the regulatory landscape indeed shows that the incumbent telecommunications operator benefits disproportionately from the multiple distortions progressively introduced by Ofcom and the European Commission on markets for the acquisition of the rights to premium sports content. Due to intervention by the latter, BT has been able to acquire part of the rights offered by the Premier League, as well as the rights to the UEFA Champions League. As a result of the regime set up by the former in 2010, it is able to offer Sky Sports channels to its subscribers (in addition to its own content). The combination of the two regimes has allowed BT to become a credible provider of pay TV services in little time.

Against this background, the immediate question that springs to mind is why Ofcom would set up regulation having the effect of strengthening the position of the incumbent telecommunications operator at the expense of two of its rivals, Sky and Virgin Media (the main cable operator in the country). In December 2014, Ofcom launched a consultation about whether the regime introduced in 2010 should be amended or removed. If this blog post is accepted as a response to the consultation, here is my reaction: ‘Please remove the compulsory licensing obligation, and the sooner, the better. It is not necessary in any way and is likely to do more harm than good’.

I guess many among you are unfamiliar with the regulation put in place by Ofcom in 2010. If you know little or nothing about it, I am sure you would find it interesting to take a look at the consultation document issued back in December by the authority. It illustrates very well the sort of issues that might arise in areas at the crossroads of competition law and sector-specific regulation. Premium TV content is in a grey area between the two. It is not part of the traditional focus of telecommunications regulation (which is primarily concerned with access to, and interconnection between, networks). At the same time, TV content is obviously relevant for broadband Internet providers offering television services as part of their triple and quadruple play bundles. The competitive advantage, in the form of exclusive rights, enjoyed by one provider is likely to influence downstream competition.

In essence, Ofcom’s seeks comments on whether it is convenient to treat premium TV content in the same way it treats the telecommunications network and thus whether it makes sense to impose compulsory supply and non-discrimination obligations on pay TV providers like Sky. Access to BT’s network ensures a level playing field between the incumbent telecommunications operator and its competitors. Imposing similar obligations in relation to Sky’s premium channels would ensure that all broadband Internet providers are able to compete on an equal footing with the leading pay TV operator in the UK.

You may have asked yourself already whether premium TV content and the telecommunications network are really comparable. If you read the consultation document you are likely to be even less convinced about the convenience of extending to content activities the regulatory regime applying to networks.

Is premium content indispensable for downstream competition? It would make sense to treat networks and premium TV content alike if the latter were an essential facility or an indispensable input to compete on the relevant downstream market. Interestingly, Ofcom’s consultation document provides extensive evidence showing that this is clearly not the case. I have in fact not found a more exhaustive and reliable source of data showing that premium TV content is a far cry from being indispensable for pay TV or triple play providers.

There is nothing anticompetitive in trying to exploit one’s competitive advantages. One should not be surprised that companies want to keep competitive advantages for themselves. Profit-maximising firms tend to be unhappy with the idea of subsidising a competitor. Authorities and courts have long understood that a refusal to supply is, absent exceptional circumstances, a manifestation of healthy rivalry. Curiously, Ofcom seems to claim that Sky’s lack of incentive to supply its premium TV channels to its rivals is anticompetitive. This is certainly the line of reasoning that a competition lawyer is more likely to find strange or surprising.

How do companies compete on the relevant downstream market(s)? It is interesting that the consultation document never seeks to define the relevant downstream market in a systematic way. The dynamics of downstream rivalry (where BT, Sky and Virgin Media compete across the whole range of convergent services) must be understood before one determines whether it is justified to take regulatory action in a particular market segment. The consultation document falls short in this regard. At times, it borders on the tautological. Here and there, Ofcom seems to suggest that obligations relating to the provision of premium sports channels are justified to promote competition on the market for premium sports content.

What are the unintended consequences of regulatory intervention? More than anything, I am concerned about the fact that Ofcom never considers the unintended consequences of regulatory intervention. By and large, pay TV and premium content are examined in isolation. The risk that intervention could strengthen the position of the incumbent telecommunications operator is never considered. Similarly, Ofcom does not question whether it makes sense to favour the commoditisation of triple and quadruple play offers. If premium TV content is far from indispensable, would it not make more sense to favour diversity, as opposed to homogeneous offers? What are the consequences of limiting operators’ scope for differentiating their products? Does regulatory intervention commoditising retail offers harm firms’ incentives to invest and innovate? These are questions to which I do not find a satisfactory answer in the consultation document.

I look forward to Ofcom’s next steps in relation to this consultation. We (read: I) will keep you updated about them. And now with the tradition: I do not have anything to disclose (funnily enough, I had to clarify this back in 2010, when I submitted this paper to a review). In fact, I do not even have a TV set at home. Although I do have a broadband subscription, which I hope to keep many years… with BT.

Written by Pablo Ibanez Colomo

26 February 2015 at 7:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. This is actually only part of the fun. The Commission helpfully wrote a letter to Ofcom last month getting involved in another part of this mess:

    Martin Holterman

    2 March 2015 at 12:17 am

  2. Hi Martin

    You are right! There is something strange going on in here. Where I see an incumbent operator that is buying a major mobile phone provider, Ofcom and European Commission see a new entrant that needs assistance. For readers who are unfamiliar with the case: Martin mentions a regulatory procedure where the Commission told Ofcom it had been too harsh on BT. Whatever happened to Article 8 of the Framework Directive…

    Pablo Ibanez Colomo

    2 March 2015 at 12:22 pm

  3. […] have written about this on the blog already. The reason why I do so again is because I understand that the […]

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