How cable cartels shut out independent views

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Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem
Illustration: Vikram Nongmaithem

Away from his home state and deprived of quality content, my uncle, who moved from Punjab to Bengaluru, tells me that he got a new set-top box for his TV just so he could view Day & Night News. He cannot access the channel any longer. Day & Night News is a Chandigarh-based news channel catering to Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and the Punjabi diaspora. It was forced to scale down operations from 1 August. The reason given by Kanwar Sandhu, the managing editor, in his final address to the audience was that the channel was unable to bear the burden of the carriage fee. About 60 employees lost their jobs. In a free market, this could seem like a story of a company that could not manage its finances and had to close shop. But there is more here than meets the eye. Over the past three years, the channel has been fighting a lonely battle to protect its freedom to reach its audiences. Finally, it lost the battle.

In the metropolitan cities, we have the direct-to-home (DTH) service providers but outside these cities, cable operators have penetrated about 75 to 80 percent of the market. These operators charge their customers for the content, but they also charge the TV channels a heavy carriage fee depending upon which band the channel chooses to relay its signal. The payment varies between Rs 2-5 crore per year. Day & Night News chose a band on the higher end, which had a higher tariff. It was confident of recovering its investment.

But after the first few weeks, the channel noticed interruptions in the transmission from the cable operator’s end whenever content was beamed against the state government, or in favour of opposition parties, or even such political developments as Manpreet Badal leaving the Akali Dal. Sometimes the channel would be scrambled. When Day & Night News took up the issue with the cable operators, they were fobbed off with lame excuses like slots not being available on the band they had chosen, or infrastructure issues. Finally, they were told to lower their volume to be assured good transmission quality.

The real reasons, of course, had nothing to do with technology. The media in Punjab has always known that there are limits to its notions of free speech, that rocking the boat comes with consequences, regardless of your channel’s stature. In the recent past, NDTV was blocked during the state elections. The BBC hasn’t been spared either. Last year, Aaj Tak was blocked in the state for a month because it showed the chief minister enjoying a movie while the Ferozepur floods raged. Zee Punjabi ran into trouble the moment it dared to criticise the incumbent government. The Tribune, the state’s oldest and largest-selling English daily, hasn’t received a single government advertisement in the past year. Punjabi news channels understand this and opt for self-censorship; it is an unwritten rule in the industry that the government of the day is, if not untouchable, to be touched only with kid gloves.

As Jagtar Singh Bhullar, from the channel’s Punjab news bureau, says, “When we cover news, we also cover the government. If the government has not performed, it will show up in our coverage. The problem with Punjab is that we have a vacuum, there is no space for the voice of the people. What our channel did was provide that space.” The channel stood by its content. In spite of their agreement, in February 2011, the operators bumped the channel from their cable network. The Cable Television Network (Regulation) Amendment Act does not provide for any redress in case the cable operator defaults on the agreement.

That is when Day & Night News found out that most cable operators were actually a front for one company, namely Fastway Transmissions Private Limited. They filed a case with the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) and the Competition Commission of India (CCI). TDSAT agreed with the channel’s plea. The CCI, in its order dated 3 July 2012, ruled in favour of the channel. It imposed a penalty of 8.04 crore on Fastway Transmissions Private Limited and directed them to “cease and desist” from indulging in “anti-competitive practices”.

Gurdip Singh, the owner of Fastway Transmissions, insists that there are still other local operators like Datacom and Hathway. He claims, “Fastway has taken a stay order from the High Court.” This means it does not need to dismantle its monopoly. I asked to see the stay order but have not yet received a copy. On independent checking, it is clear that Fastway Transmissions is the dominant cable company in Patiala, Bathinda, Amritsar, Jalandhar and other major towns and cities and villages of Punjab. The state government’s apparatus has failed in making Fastway Transmission comply with the CCI’s decision.

In the meantime, Day & Night News has explored the possibility of going on the network of DTH service providers. The service providers too charge a carriage fee of approximately 2 crore per channel to include it in the bouquet of programmes they offer their customers through their set-top box. The channel will have to pay each service provider to come into that provider’s particular bouquet. Day & Night News also explored the option of Doordarshan, which comes under Prasar Bharti and has a few slots for what are called free-to-air channels. Even though the term implies that the channel is ‘free to air’, Doordarshan charges an uplinking fee. The fee is settled by auction. Day & Night News is a regional channel and does not need India-wide rights. The fee was simply too much to bear.

The issue, however, is not just costs. Advertisers go by cable network TRP ratings to decide which channels offer them the biggest bang for their buck. With Day & Night News bumped off the cable network, the number of advertisements, the lifeblood of any viable TV channel, dwindled. That choked the channel. The channel had found a huge viewership among Punjabi diaspora in the United States and Canada, and had entered a content sharing partnership with TV channels there. But the scaling down of operations has meant ending live programming, making even the North American market no longer viable.

Given the high rate of carriage fees, TV channels, newspapers and magazines rely on support from the government in the form of advertisements. Yet, in Punjab, the deputy chief minister with the home portfolio also has a stake in the PTC and PTC News channels, as declared in his nomination papers. With an in-house TV channel at its disposal, the government does not advertise on any other TV channel. PTC also gets the rights to beam the World Cup Kabaddi, the NRI Sammelan and the Vidhan Sabha proceedings.

The government’s media spokesperson Harcharan Bains chose not to comment on the Day & Night case: “It is a matter between two private parties. The court has ruled and there is nothing to add.” Kanwar Sandhu asks, “What is the point of the Central government giving us permission to beam our channel but not giving us the environment to beam it?” While a TV channel has to get permission from various authorities, the cable operator needs no permission to beam numerous local in-house channels to its selected audience. Gurdip Singh, owner of Fastway, is defiant: “Yes, we broadcast kirtans from gurdwaras and temple ceremonies, we beam local content according to the demand from our customers. Would you describe it as content or a separate channel?”

The Cable TV Network Act is, typically, silent about what and how much cable operators are allowed to broadcast. Kanwar says, “People will remember us for taking a stand.” When asked if he sees the blocking and eventual bumping off of his channel as the personal vendetta of vested interests, he is pragmatic: “Personal branding is a part of the news business. We read newspapers and magazines because a certain editor produces them. It has carried on in TV. We knew this was a battle and we faced it. My promoters, Kansan News Private Limited, backed me.”

Transmission technologies may have changed but in the absence of clear legislation, customers are still not free to view channels of their choice. DTH has not yet managed to break cable TV cartels. Instead, DTH has adopted similar tactics. As Kanwar says, “Unless the law plugs the loopholes, someone or the other will exploit them, and there isn’t a chance for freedom of the press and the people in the country.”

letters@tehelka.com

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