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April, and it’s time for chop and change of channels

NDTV’s Star News bid loyalists farewell late on Sunday and viewers woke up to Star News’ non-NDTV Hindi avatar on Monday morning. NDTV news is expected to be back by the end of this month, but on a different beam — as part of the Sony bouquet. Sahara has started phasing in its 30-plus new channels, with a few operators in the city already switching on three or four. April is clearly the month of chop-and-change on cable, and the winds are cautiously blowing the consumers’ way.

“There are about 250 channels on air in India, but the maximum that any television can hold is 65. So, we have to pick and choose, and when new ones come in, we have to decide, area and viewership-wise, what can and cannot be replaced,” explains Ashim Dutta, CEO of RPG Netcom.

The crunch for the cable operator is deciding the priority list. The technological division consists of three parts — prime band, S band and hyper band (see box). The prime band, which can hold only 10 channels, is accessible on all sets. Therefore, Doordarshan and the most popular channels are broadcast on this frequency. So, while Set Max slipped after the World Cup final, CNN climbed up with the ‘war on Iraq’, “as most viewers want it now”. Juggling is necessary for rare events like the World Cups and the war, but it’s always a tough task for operators.

Hit-and-hope-we-don’t-miss is how some cable operators do it, by experimenting with minority and less-popular channels. A SitiCable operator has replaced a Tamil song channel, SS Music, with one of Sahara’s new offerings. “And we know that customers don’t mind, because we haven’t had any complaints,” he adds.

Dutta stresses the fact that regional preferences by specific communities have to be considered, because these channels, too, have their captive audience. “And bouquets, like Sony and Star, that come in packages, have to be kept, since a particular channel cannot be discarded,” he points out. In addition to this is the fact that existing broadcasters have established themselves, and change may not be welcome. “Just because Sahara is coming out with a news channel doesn’t mean we can take Aaj Tak off air. They are quite well-liked and trusted,” says Dutta.

So, while prime-band channels cannot be substituted by new entrants, because of their high ratings, there are others, even on hyper band, that cannot be thrown out. “Like FTV, which is the only one of its kind. Even those who have no idea of fashion, watch it for obvious reasons. Hence, we cannot pull it off the beam,” observes the SitiCable spokesperson.

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