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Murdoch whiff in broadcast push

New Delhi, May 12: Even as Union minister of state for information and broadcasting Ravi Shankar Prasad came out with a statement in the Rajya Sabha on Friday on the government’s changing media policies, a firm said to be backed by Rupert Murdoch’s STAR has moved a step ahead to win permission to begin Direct to Home (DTH) broadcasting.

Space Television, which applied for licence to begin DTH services in April 2002 after STAR failed, has been asked to deposit Rs 10 crore for the government to process its application and examine whether its proposal conforms to guidelines.

STAR, which had earlier lobbied hard for the DTH service, could not apply because the policy laid down that foreign investment in DTH companies could not exceed 49 per cent (a ceiling of 20 per cent on FDI and 29 percent on FII investment).

Clearance of the Space Television application will depend on the green signals of the ministry of home affairs and the ministry of communications. Also, industry estimates say Space will need to make an investment of about Rs 1,500 crore. Whether DTH services will take off in the conditional access regime that is to debut from mid July is still much in doubt.

Prasad has told Parliament that there were three DTH applicants. Apart from Space TV, the two are A S C Enterprises and Essel Shyam.

A S C or “Agrani” is backed by Zee and Essel Shyam is a joint venture proposal of Zee and Shyam Telecom.

Opposition MPs were critical of the government’s media policies with Left members insinuating that Prasad’s ministry was giving in to pressure from foreign media companies such as STAR.

But Prasad has been insistent that all media policies were being formulated with safeguards to ensure that control remains in Indian hands.

One reason for the ire over the media policies is the perception that STAR particularly has been a big beneficiary of the changes in rules in the electronic media sector.

Critics cite the instance of STAR’s gains out of the new policies concerning uplinking and FM Radio. However, where uplinking for news and current affairs channels are concerned, STAR will have to whittle down its foreign equity holding in the Indian concern to 26 per cent or less.

Till March 31 this year, STAR News’ content provider was NDTV, which used to uplink its news footage through a VSat connection to Hong Kong. The permission was held by NDTV. Now that NDTV has taken off on its own, STAR has had to ask for permission afresh. But as a going concern, STAR News has some time to get the permission and ensure that its programming is not disrupted. Just how much time it would take for the clearance is still debatable. According to ministry officials, STAR has three months’ time, but STAR has been insisting that it has a year’s time to restructure the equity in its Indian operation.

It has also been insinuated that STAR has gained from the policies governing FM radio. Last month, the STAR-backed “Radio City” took off in Delhi. Radio City is owned by Music Broadcast Private Limited and its main content supplier, Digi Wave, is also a STAR-supported firm.

However, ministry officials stiffly resent charges that their policies have favoured one group over any other. For instance, they say, under the new uplinking policy, 31 companies have been granted permits to uplink 88 channels.

Moreover, STAR is among the powerful broadcasters who have been arguing that the conditional access regime, slated to be implemented from July 14, is heavily weighed in favour of cable operators. They doubt the practicability of implementing the conditional access system. The government claims the system will give the viewer more freedom of choice, but broadcasters are less than enthusiastic because it will reveal viewership figures and pay channels are likely to take a hit.

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