Rajdeep Sharma had taken leave from work to watch Sachin Tendulkar bat, little knowing that he would be remembering the master’s final innings as much for a black patch on his TV screen as for a copybook cover drive.
“You couldn’t see part of the score bar at the bottom, you couldn’t see where the ball pitched and you couldn’t watch Sachin’s copybook footwork for as long as that irritating black patch remained on the screen. It was madness,” the 36-year MNC executive fumed.
He wasn’t the only one to suffer the periodic interruptions by the black, almost opaque patch that would routinely pop up on the TV screen to display a message from the broadcaster. Every time STAR Sports hurled the beamer — “Your cable operator has huge outstanding dues” — lakhs of subscribers across Calcutta felt cheated.
“I pay my bills on time and I am not responsible if the money is not reaching the broadcaster. My cable operator tells me he hasn’t defaulted on payments to the multi-system operator. Since I don’t have access to the MSO, I don’t know where the chain breaks. These problems have increased since digitisation,” Sharma said.
Broadcasters pressuring MSOs to regularise their payments by holding subscribers to ransom has been the norm since cable television switched from analogue to digital last February.
Metro highlights the systemic flaws and how subscribers are caught in the battle between broadcasters and MSOs, maybe for good.
Packages were meant to give the subscriber control over what he or she wanted to watch and pay only for that. The choice was between bouquets of channels — basic, medium and premium — with fixed monthly rentals or an a la carte version where the subscriber could pick content priced by the broadcasters on a channel-to-channel basis.
All of these options were to be made available within three months of digitisation of cable television in February. Nine months have passed since, but few MSOs have delivered what they had promised.
“We have subscribed to the highest package, for which we pay Rs 320 a month. But we don’t get BBC News and niche channels such as Khana Khazana and Food Food. STAR Jalsa and ZEE Bangla go off air for 10 minutes or more just when I am about to watch my prime-time soaps,” said Purnima Mukherjee, a resident of Shibpur in Howrah.
Annapurna Cable, a service provider in Baguiati, has gone back to a flat rate of Rs 200. “Manthan Broadband, the MSO we get our signals from, has not been able to provide packages as promised. So there is no reason why we should charge some subscribers more for what others can see for less. As of now, every subscriber is getting all the channels on offer,” a representative of the cable operator said.
In a housing complex near Ruby hospital, the operator who transmits Siti Cable signals began distributing application forms for packages only a few weeks ago.
Most cable operators have yet to sign revenue-sharing agreements with their MSOs. Without one, there is uncertainty both for MSO and subscriber.
Cable operators were not used to paying their MSOs for each connection in the analogue regime. Since the advent of set-top boxes has made the number of connections transparent, cable operators are allegedly not supporting their MSOs in properly implementing the new system.
“We are dependent on cable operators to complete the process of finalising which subscriber wants to see what. We also need the operators to educate the subscribers about the different packages on offer. Many are not doing their bit,” the director of an MSO said.
Some MSOs had introduced a system where they would generate the bills and their cable operators would take printouts through intranet to distribute among their subscribers.
But the cable operators opposed the system. “We could not accept a system where the MSO’s name instead of ours would be on the bill. That way we would be reduced to courier boys who would be easy to discard at a later date,” said Mrinal Chatterjee, who runs Akash Sutra, a cable network in Bangur and its adjoining areas.
“I have a cable operator’s licence and that gives me the right to collect subscription. I am not an agent or franchisee of the MSO,” he added.
In the absence of a billing system, most cable operators make subscribers sign on two cards at the time of payment — one for each party. The service and entertainment tax that is a part of the monthly rent more often than not doesn’t go to the government.
A handful of operators recently returned the amount taxed over the past few months to their subscribers for fear of a crackdown, sources said.
G.S. Kesharwani, deputy adviser to TRAI, said problems with billing and packages had been reported in Mumbai and Delhi, too.
“We are in talks with MSOs and cable operators’ organisations to find solutions to the problems between them,” he said.
Kesharwani described most of the challenges for the cable television industry as “teething problems of digitisation”.
On the black patch that often disrupted the telecast of the recent India-West Indies Test series in many cable homes, Kesharwani said: “There is nothing in the rule book that says the broadcaster can’t adopt such a measure to pressure an MSO to pay up. But it goes against the spirit of customer service. If people who face such problems mail us at email@example.com, we will take this up with the broadcaster.”
According to a senior official of STAR Sports, three MSOs of Calcutta — GTPL-KCBPL, Manthan and Digicable — had huge outstanding dues ahead of Tendulkar’s farewell series.
The broadcaster used the black patch warning of disconnection throughout the series.