Sat, Dec 04, 2010 - Page 18 News List

Armchair soccer gets political in Vietnam


Vietnam’s soccer fans are kicking up such a stink over charges to watch some European matches on TV that the communist government has been drawn into the row over the nation’s favorite sport.

For the first time a foreign company has been allowed to penetrate the audio-visual market, armed with exclusive rights to the Spanish and Italian championships and some games from the hugely popular English Premier League.

However, the breakthrough by France’s Canal+ — which launched satellite channel K+ in January in a joint venture with state broadcaster VTV — has prompted anger that key matches are only available to those who pay.

“Everyone, including the government and the Communist Party, has got involved and accused foreigners of stealing from the poor,” an expatriate businessman said, asking not to be named.

Vietnam’s state media have described a “wave of protest.”

“For years, sitting in front of a television watching English Premier League football matches at weekends has become a part of the life of Vietnamese football fans,” the Vietnam News daily said. “It has cultural value, which many feel should be protected.”

K+ does not have exclusive rights to all English fixtures, but controls those on Sundays, when the biggest games take place.

A subscription that includes the K+1 channel — which shows the exclusive matches — costs 250,000 dong (US$12) a month, beyond the reach of many as the average income in Vietnam is US$1,000 a year.

“However ‘normal’ pay-to-watch sporting events may now be in other countries, many Vietnamese consider it unfair that people with average incomes should be priced out of the nation’s favorite pastime,” the VietnamNet Web site said.

Amid the outcry, the government has intervened. Vietnam’s Ministry of Information and -Communication “told VTV to share broadcast rights for the English soccer matches with other Vietnamese television firms,” said Vu Quang Huy, deputy manager of VTC, another state TV firm.

“But this request remains unanswered,” he said.

A foreign diplomat in Hanoi, declining to be named, said he would not be surprised if the government had a change of heart over its decision to let the French into the market.

“They probably won’t tell the French group to go home ... but they could force them to reach a kind of agreement” with competitors, the diplomat said.

K+ has made a concession, according to assistant director general Arnaud de Villeneuve: Its soccer channel is now viewable on the Internet and the company is in talks with two cable operators to allow them the same transmission.

However, he explained that the contract for the rights does not allow the resale of individual matches to other broadcasters.

“Competitors who are not happy to see us arriving on the market and taking these rights have stirred up trouble and encouraged people to complain so that we look malicious,” he said.

He added that in spite of K+’s exclusivity, some competitors were still showing the Sunday matches.

Nonetheless, K+ is catching on, even if through negative publicity. De Villeneuve said package subscriptions had risen faster since July and now exceed 100,000, in a country with about 2 million paid TV subscribers.

He rejected the suggestion that showing English soccer was a crucial information service that should be free.

While there was no desire to “punish” people, “it’s not as if we are taking rice from the Vietnamese,” he said.

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