Content piracy is sounding the death knell for free-to-air television, and possibly even threatening democracy, former TTT programme manager, now Direct TV TT general manager, Bernard Pantin has said.

“Our broadcasting and telecoms sector has been dying in many respects over the last ten years and nobody is doing anything to protect it,” Pantin told a conference on the impact of content piracy on subscription television Tuesday at the Hyatt Regency, Port of Spain.

TT was, as far as he could tell, the only country in the Western Hemisphere where radio advertising accounts for more revenue than television, with TV accounting for only 20 per cent of advertising spend because free-to-air (FTA) stations have been competing on an uneven playing field.

“Unwittingly, the local regulators failed to protect the FTA market and the market has collapsed over the last two years, with layoffs at the three biggest stations,” he said. Declining revenues have an impact on the stations’ investment in local content, he said. But the biggest impact is its effect on newsrooms.

“If our FTA TV stations do not have money to hire good-quality reporters or do good-quality coverage and give us at least two competing newscasts every night, then our democracy is potentially in peril, and I believe that is a policy position that needs to be addressed. This has not happened anywhere else in the world,” he said.

Content piracy and falling revenues are legitimate concerns for local FTA stations, said Kiran Maharaj, vice president of the TT Publishers and Broadcasters Association and president of the Media Institute of the Caribbean.

“Television stations get revenue from advertising. If people are getting content free elsewhere, then the ratings will drop and advertisers will not be attracted,” she said.

FTA broadcasters lose on two sides – they pay for foreign content to broadcast and then lose market share when that content is streamed illegally. It also hurts local filmmakers and other content creators, she said, because their work is pirated instead of paid, and they will also lose a forum to showcase it.

With regard to the news media, Maharaj said bluntly that if broadcasters can’t pay staff as well as investing in training and development, people may have to go home.

“It’s already bad as it is, because of the digital world we live in and the whole conversion to digital. Adapt or die: that’s the business model now,” she said.

Piracy, she added, could cause the death of FTAs.