World Cup Viewing Imperiled in Colombia in Fight Over TV Signals

Pay-TV Operators Don't Want to Start Paying to Carry Broadcasters

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An official Adidas World Cup
An official Adidas World Cup Credit: Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

It's not just the United States that sees popular channels blacked out in retransmission disputes: After a 16-year wait for their team to play in soccer's World Cup, millions of Colombians may not be able to watch a single game at home.

In Colombia, the fight isn't over how much pay-TV operators need to pay to carry the channels; it's whether they'll pay at all. So far they haven't had to, but suddenly that may be changing -- just as the World Cup begins.

A week before the tournament's opening ceremony, pay-TV operators America Movil, Telefonica and UNE EPM Telecomunicaciones are determining whether they need to remove the games' broadcasters from their channel lineups after a decision from Colombia's antitrust regulator. The agency, known as SIC, said in a ruling this week that the operators need broadcasters' permission to carry their signal.

That conflicts with the longtime requirement that pay-TV operators retransmit RCN Television and Caracol's TV signals under a law known as "must-carry," which seeks to ensure all TV viewers have access to the most popular channels.

RCN Television and Caracol are each planning to broadcast 40 games, including all those played by Colombia, which until this year hadn't qualified for a World Cup tournament since 1998.

"We're very confused because we don't know which authority to follow," Juan Carlos Archila, president of America Movil's Colombia unit, said in an interview broadcast yesterday on Caracol Radio. America Movil is the nation's biggest TV provider, with 2 million subscribers, according to government data from December. EPM has 1.1 million, and Telefonica has 336,000.

Now the broadcasters are asking the carriers to start paying a fee for the use of their signals -- and the cable companies are refusing. The broadcasters have offered to let the cable companies use their signals without charge until later this year, SIC Superintendent Pablo Felipe Robledo said yesterday, according to newspaper La Republica.

But the operators won't accept any agreement that might imply they will have to pay a fee in the future.

DirecTV, Colombia's third-biggest TV carrier with 869,000 subscribers, will still be able to show the World Cup because it owns the rights to all 64 games in the competition.

About 4.7 million Colombians subscribe to pay TV services, according to data from the national TV authority. Almost 75 percent of them watch over-the-air signals through cable or satellite operators, with the rest using antennas to get the broadcasts for free, according to the pay-TV companies.

~ Bloomberg News ~

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