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Writers’ third umpire at cable crease
- State steps in with sort-it-out diktat to pre-empt channel blackout during Cup

As the race for World Cup Super Six berths hots up and tension in the dressing room mounts, the government has been called upon to play the role of third umpire to ensure that the cricket action keeps reaching city drawing rooms.

At the behest of RPG Netcom, the city’s leading service provider, the government has taken an early initiative to avert a probable switch-off scenario if a payment bottleneck is not eased immediately. With broadcasters denied their dues stepping up the heat on RPG Netcom, the multi-system operator (MSO) feeding 75 per cent of the city’s cable homes, had turned to Writers’ Buildings.

A section of cablemen, led by the Cable Operators Sangram Committee, has withheld payment to the service provider, even at old rates. “The inflow of money from the ground has seen a significant slowdown over the last couple of months. This has resulted in a cash-flow problem in meeting commitments to broadcasters, and the company anticipates any of them can switch off channels if payment is delayed further,” says Netcom CEO Ashim Dutta, who met home secretary Amit Kiran Deb to explain how “grave” the situation was.

Loath to risk another law-and-order problem with Cup fever at high pitch, the state machinery brought both service provider and last-mile operator to the talks table on Monday and “instructed” them to sort out commercial issues and “ensure there is no blackout” (at least of the sports channels). Sangram Committee representatives, along with Netcom officials, were summoned to the enforcement and vigilance department and asked to “keep the funds flowing so that business can continue”. The cablemen’s body has already requested member operators to “clear outstandings” at old rates by end-February, the deadline set at Monday’s meeting.

Last year, the state had stepped in to break the deadlock over ESPN-STAR Sports amidst high midnight drama at Park Street police station, during the NatWest Trophy. Another volatile situation had kept the police on tenterhooks when parts of the city missed the Brazil-England World Cup soccer tie, thanks to a local technical fault. The authorities, wary of a violent action replay, had told the MSO to keep them posted, should a “switch-off-like situation” develop.

According to RPG Netcom, the cable trade in Calcutta is close to crisis point with all major bouquets raising pay-channel package rates in the New Year, besides seeking increased connectivity; the cumulative impact coming to around Rs 90 extra per subscriber. It is learnt that most networks in Delhi and Mumbai have already hiked monthly subscription by “at least Rs 70” to satisfy broadcasters’ demands. In Mumbai, service providers even got together with broadcasters last week for a token 24-hour shutdown of all pay channels to “educate” the viewer.

The silver lining for cricket fans is that the cable conflict hasn’t clouded the Sony skies, yet. “Cash flow is still not a serious problem, and as long as RPG Netcom keeps its commitment, we are happy,” says Shantonu Aditya, president, SET-Discovery. But for how long'

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