The EPG market is alive and well... and may be set to blossom in Latin America
by Ed Hall
If you are of a certain age, you will recall, like me, that a couple of decades ago we had to work out how to find television channels, either by flicking up and down through the channel numbers, or by tuning in to frequencies on satellites. Finding TV channels was actually quite complicated, and I’m not sure that digital native young people would even be able to make an old analogue TV work. It makes me think of that excellent YouTube video of two young people trying to dial a number on a rotary-dial telephone.
One of the biggest changes in the digital TV revolution was the introduction of Electronic Programme Guides, a user interface that allows viewers to navigate through a menu of channels. Over time the EPG listings and guides themselves have evolved to become high-profile assets.
When comparing how EPG markets and platforms have developed in various regions it’s interesting to note how the emergence of a trading market in EPG prominence has affected broadcasters and EPG listings in those areas. In particular, Sky in the UK is one of the most prominent platforms to have developed a trading market for EPG slots, with others like Virgin gently following suit. Allowing broadcasters to trade their channel numbers and to pay for prominence on the screens and menus is a business function in broadcasting, and it’s a market that is now a major source of dynamic movement in the channel line-up viewers see.
As a result, the platforms with EPG trading have grown tremendously whilst Cablevision which is the largest cable TV operator in Argentina continues to remain without a trading market on slots, and that limits dynamic change, new entrants to the market and opportunity for new broadcasters. If platforms manage their own EPGs and are able to favour their own channels, I’m not sure it is the viewer who benefits.
Since the emergence of the Sky EPG market about fifteen years ago, there are now 534 channels available to the 10M+ households that have Sky. Initially starting out as an informal market with channels launching, closing-down and jostling privately for position on Sky’s platform evolved over time into a more formal market-place with broadcasters trading slots using Sky’s new ‘Listings Methodology’. This is a formal set of rules and guidelines devised by Sky to ensure the smooth transfer of EPG slots from one broadcaster to another. Broadcasters usually, but not always, secure the services of an intermediary such as our business when buying or selling an EPG slot and to ensure they access the widest possible current database of potential purchasers.
Cablevision possesses over 300 channels and provides additional internet and mobile services, similar to that of Sky but only has 3M+ customers across Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. There does not appear to be an active EPG trading market, and no public methodology is available. As Argentina goes through the DTT switchover, the question also begins to apply to the terrestrial multiplexes, how do channel numbers get allocated? How do new players get good numbers, and can broadcasters sell the channel numbers they have?
From the moment that the existence of a Sky EPG market became public knowledge, the valuation of positions also became a matter of commercial interest. When a broadcaster buys a slot (or channel number) on Sky, they are buying the right to broadcast their channel in that slot, as long as they meet the rules about the type of channel and quality and range of content.
Thereafter, that broadcaster has the right to sell that channel number to another broadcaster.
The Sky market exists because broadcasters quickly realised that different slots delivered different audiences and therefore had different values; a prominent position at the top of the first page delivered greater audiences than those further down. Those same principles apply today, and can also be applied to pages that promote new or premium content.
In 2018 Sky created a four month ‘trading window’ during which time existing broadcasters in Entertainment and Documentaries could swap and sell slots to each other before the platform implemented some major changes. Instead of the platform deciding where these huge global channels sat, the market decided. We represented the BBC in selling three sought after slots, 141, 142 and 143 and all the other major broadcasters bought, swapped and sold slots over the four-month trading period. It was a new and unique way to manage such a major change in the programme guide, and it seems to have worked. The ‘new look’ Sky EPG went live on 1 May 2018, with a channel line-up decided by broadcasters negotiating and trading with each other.
As newer digital markets mature and the platforms introduce new technologies and user interfaces, I suspect many will start looking to this commercial model as a simple way to manage the channels, and based on our experience here, it works well.