Colombia faces the opening up of its television market. The peace process with the FARC being conducted by President Santos’ government is also relevant to the media market, especially television.
María Paula Martinez*/Colombia/ June 2016.
The end of the duopoly in the private television market in Colombia is near. After twenty years of the private television model that has been maintained by just two channels, RCN and Caracol, the government has announced that a third and fourth channel will soon be on air. This is a decision that has been pending for some time and which comes at a defining moment for the deconcentration of the TV market. It also represents a fundamental change in the television supply in the middle of the transition to the digital signal and the peace process.
With just three years to go before the digital switchover, the TV sector is seeking to diversify. It is not yet clear what contents will be created or who is actually competing to enter this lucrative market, but we do know that putting an end to the duopoly will not be easy. There have already been several failed attempts. The most recent effort began in 2008 and was terminated in 2012 by the State Council for breaches of guarantees and unfair competition. Since then the government has made promises of a re-opening that could not be fulfilled, and today there are great expectations as to what might happen by the end of 2017 when the new channels begin transmissions.
On May 4, the Ministry of Information and Communication Technologies (MinTic) announced the timetable for two processes that will be definitive for the country’s present television system: the awarding of the only existing mixed channel to a single operator, and the invitation to submit tenders for a fourth channel. For the transformation of what is presently known as Channel One, a three month tender period has started, with an announcement made that eight bids have already been received: Colombiana de Television; NTC Television; Jorge Baron Television; Sportsat; Televideo; Programar; RTI and Compañía de Medios de Información Limitada (CMI). Various of the aforementioned already hold franchises and seek to acquire the whole channel. The tender period for the new Channel One will be open until August of this year and the winning bid will be made public in October, to begin operating in 2017.
No bids have yet been received for the fourth channel, although it has been reported that companies interested in competing may not have more than 40% of foreign participation. The previously failed tenders included bids from the Spanish groups Planeta and Prisa, along with Cisneros from Venezuela.
What will change with the introduction of the new channels?
The system will change and there is an expectation that a new relationship will be forged between viewers and television content. In an age of Netflix and pay TV, the battle for on-screen entertainment is an issue that is becoming increasingly complex, and which in Colombia was until recently of a very anachronistic nature. In a country with a very high rate of pay-per-view TV penetration, standing at 80%, and a very low rate of Internet penetration (less than 30%), the domination of analog TV was unthreatened and marked by scant concern for quality, diversity and pluralism. Public television had no audience, while the domestic private-sector channels shared the audience and the billion pesos annually received through advertising revenues.
When the new channels begin their transmissions the TV scenario in Colombia will change: competition between four, more equitable and interesting channels. First there will be an attempt to attract viewers who have been educated over the last 20 years in the habit of watching the same two channels, news programs and soap operas; this will then be followed (hopefully) by a redistribution of the viewing public, which will have more domestic output to choose from. All of which will be framed within the guidelines of the National Development Plan (NDP) which established as one of its goals the deployment of the digital signal and Direct Television Home (DTH), also taking into consideration for the first time in the country, subsidies for terminal equipment, televisions and solar panels.
This measure represents a move on the part of national television that strengthens both public and private TV and which can, in the long term, have an impact on ratings and thus on the lucrative advertising revenues of the new national channels. Added to this, the peace process being conducted by the government of President Santos with the FARC rebels is also relevant to the media market, especially television. Point two of the signed pre-agreements between the parties has to do with political participation and one of its forms is media participation. In the joint draft document, agreement was made to set up a new closed-circuit television channel with legal status for political parties. Consideration was also given for investment in content to publicize the work of social organizations and to promote a culture of peace and reconciliation.
Thus, Colombia faces the opening up of its television market. In the coming years new companies will begin operating and audiences and advertising will begin to shift for the first time in a long period. Digital Television for Everyone (TDT) will be extended across the whole country, alongside the opening of new channels and in the midst of a peace process, so creating a window of opportunity that will redefine the media as a place where the social fabric can be reconstructed and new ways of seeing the country become possible.
* Political scientist and professor of journalism at Universidad de Los Andes, Colombia. firstname.lastname@example.org