China's mobile media play

16 Jun 2006

Asian telcos don't share the reluctance of Europeans and Americans to invest in media.

The latest member of the club is China Mobile, which is spending about HK$1.2-$1.4 billion ($154-$180 million) for 19.9% of Phoenix Satellite TV.

It joins PCCW and Telstra as regional incumbents not afraid to strike out into the media market. It's not for the faint-hearted and, despite all the blather about convergence, it's not necessarily on-strategy.

Telstra has spent hundreds of millions over the past decade on its Foxtel pay TV joint venture. It took ten years to turn a profit, despite the backing of media magnates Packer and Murdoch, and is still a long way from break-even.

PCCW has seen great success with NOW, the world's first IPTV service, but it just spent $100 million on kitting out a business news channel. That's a new business for the telco, and a very competitive segment, unlike the pre-NOW pay TV sector in Hong Kong.

It is disconcerting that both companies explain their media plays in strategic rather than financial terms.

China Mobile's Phoenix investment dispels the notion that it was planning to be a global emerging market specialist, denying rumors it was planning a tilt at Millicom.

Instead it has signaled it wants to climb the value chain in its domestic market. In that sense it is no different from neighboring operators in Korea and Japan, which have thriving wireless data and content markets.

At first blush, you'd be skeptical. China Mobile is a quasi-monopoly, tightly under the control of its ministry, with a slim M&A track record. Media is a hit-and-miss business, even for the experts.

There's no need to buy the whole company just to get its content. There's also the irony in a mobile operator splashing out on content when it doesn't even have a 3G license.

But China's is an under-served and fast-growing media market, and Phoenix's Chinese channel is the most popular channel in town. Phoenix revenues topped $120 million last year, reaching 180 million viewers.

Fourth screen

China Mobile chairman Wang Jianzhou says the firm has no intention of playing an active role in Phoenix.

Buying into an existing successful TV channel doesn't carry the same risk as a media startup, and financially, it's just a snip for China Mobile.

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