For most Latvians, television is a service that comes over the net, so it rightly belongs in a telecoms blog. And anyway, what is telecoms? More and more, it is using a computer with a voice/video chat function. I am not only talking about Skype and its clones, but also those computers with voice functions that we call smartphones, such as the iPhone4s.There has been a big hoo-hah about television in Latvia, mainly because of a big merger between a subsidiary of Sweden's Modern Times Group (MTG), TV3 and another privately owned TV company Latvijas Neatkarīgā televīzija (LNT). TV3 and LNT were both loss makers in a drastically reduced advertising market and it was a matter of time before LNT would go down first, taking a pretty talented crew and substantial audience down with the ship. So the move was necessary, and, even if it established a kind of Swedish monopoly on commercial television (with lots of restrictions imposed on the deal by Latvia's Competition Council) it was still better than the alternative of LNT going down or being sold to some murky Russian media group.
Up to now, both channels have been paying customers of Lattelecom, both for its terrestrial digital broadcast services (with the digital signal also going out over Lattelecom's interactive IPTV service). Oddly, Lattelecom's CEO Juris Gulbis spent quite a few tweets criticizing the merger, even though both were his customers and it really didn't matter who owned them as long as they pay their bills. In 2013, if amendments to the Electronic Media Law are passed, it will put an end to something called “must carry” and both commercial channels, hitherto broadcast over cable and internet networks for free, will be able to charge cable operators and, eventually, viewers, for watching them. Kaspars Ozoliņš, the CEO of MTG Baltics says the extra revenue will allow him to expand locally produced programming on both “national” commercial channels, thereby retaining and increasing his audience and the base for future advertising.
It may, however, be too little and perhaps too late. A lot of cable operators are saying they will relegate both national commercial channels to premium packages with fewer viewers, defeating the purpose of increasing the number of viewers. Others will pay but won't pass on their costs to their viewers (the head of a small cable TV operation in the town of Kuldiga told me this). Still others may use their cable networks as “common antennas” and feed the terrestrial digital signal (still for free for all of 2013) to their viewers. Those who have modern television sets with built in digital decoders will see the feed effortlessly, others may have to rig their Lattelecom terrestrial decoders to the cable network. So it looks like lifting “must carry” will not exactly free the Golden Goose to go flying into the coffers of MTG.
An interesting and still struggling free internet TV operation is draugiem.tv, launched by the social network of the same name. Its assortment of channels is still limited, but still includes BBC World. It seems that the commercial Latvian networks see it as an upstart and have blocked draugiem from using their signal. Look for a proliferation of internet TV and TV aggregators in Latvia as entrepreneurs discover how relatively easy this is to do.
On another note, I tested the new random videochat application Airtime.com. The jury is still out. I ended up talking to an internet entrepreneur in The Hague, told him about TechHub Riga. Before him, some murky faces appeared (bad lighting, bad cameras), not eager to talk. So it could be another Chatroullette, which by many accounts degenerated into a series of exhibitionists looking for random “viewers” of their attributes.