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Soap opera on television box
- Walkout and warning after cost clash

New Delhi, June 18: Disgusted with the squabbling within the cable television industry, the secretary of the information and broadcasting ministry, Pawan Chopra, walked out of a meeting he had called today to shape the rollout of the conditional access (CAS) regime.

After walking out of the meeting, Chopra issued a barely veiled threat — particularly to broadcasters — to come out with rates of pay channels that will be acceptable to the viewer or else the government would take “coercive measures”.

Chopra called an end to the meeting and withdrew after an unsigned rate list of pay channels was circulated by STAR Television chief Peter Mukherjea. Cable operators estimated that the rates on the list, circulated by STAR but applicable to pay channels also from Sony, Zee and ESPN-STAR Sports, can cost a subscriber between Rs 540 and Rs 578 a month.

Information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad has been promising that most pay channels will be available for not more that Rs 200 a month per subscriber.

“Peter Mukherjea did say that this was a first draft on which discussions and negotiations could take place. Well, to say the least, I think we wasted a lot of time. This could have been done much earlier. I do hope they will consult among themselves and quickly come back so that the government will not be required to take coercive measures,” Chopra said after the meeting.

Mukherjea’s colleague and STAR chief operations officer, Sameer Nair, who also attended the meeting, admitted that it was inconceivable that pay channels currently among the most viewed could be given at a rate of Rs 200 or less.

The Zee/Siticable head, Jawahar Goel, said “a photocopy (the rate list circulated by STAR) has been floating around but we have not associated ourselves with it. The truth of the matter is that the government is very angry and the secretary walked out of the meeting. I think these rates are not suitable under CAS”.

Goel also alleged that STAR was deliberately inflating rates so that viewers were turned away from CAS and the implementation of the regime could be disrupted.

Conversations with the representatives of broadcasters and multi-system operators (MSOs) at the meeting revealed that sections of the industry fell out over a share of the revenues that will accrue from distributing pay channels. The MSOs asked for margins of 70 per cent over and above the rates quoted by STAR.

The government also found the rates quoted by STAR ridiculous. Chopra described it as a proposal that was “not serious at all”. “I was disappointed that they (the broadcasters and the MSOs) have not had sufficient dialogue among themselves. They still seem to have bitter differences... if one were to add the rates proposed, it does appear that the total price of pay channels is far above the indicative price of Rs 230 currently,” he said.

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