Hathway subscribers will miss seeing Virat Kohli in the T20 World Cup or Luis Suarez’s star act for Liverpool in the Premier League unless they choose to go a la carte. (AFP)
Adarsh Agarwal wanted to see Chris Gayle and Co. do the Gangnam but all he saw was a blank screen with the message: “This service is blocked.”
The 20-year-old BCom student switched channels from STAR Sports 1 to 3. Same result.
Adarsh wasn’t the only one in town stumped by multi- system operator Hathway, just as the Pakistanis were by Sunil Narain and Samuel Badree at Mirpur on Tuesday evening.
At least three lakh cable homes could even miss out on India’s shot at the World T20 crown and the business end of the English Premier League because of Hathway’s sudden decision to yank off all four STAR Sports channels from its packaged offerings.
The channels disappeared early on April 1, coinciding with the deadline set by STAR Sports for increased subscription from MSOs like Hathway, which accounts for 10 per cent of Calcutta’s total cable subscriptions.
“STAR Sports has increased the charges for its bouquet of channels, making it impossible for us to offer those as part of a package, which is always subsidised,” Shirish Ruparel, content head at Hathway, told Metro from Mumbai.
Subscribers who want one or more of the STAR Sports channels back need to call their cable operators for the a la carte option or register for the service online. On Tuesday, most subscribers found to their dismay that neither could be easily done.
In some cases, the cable operators were not taking calls and many of those trying to register online found the Hathway site allegedly unresponsive or slow.
According to the director of a city-based MSO who requested anonymity, STAR Sports has raised the monthly subscription for all four channels from Rs 8 to Rs 12 per customer from April 1. While the other MSOs are in talks with the broadcaster to reduce the rate, Hathway has gone ahead and removed the channels from their package options.
Industry insiders say this might have set a precedent. Other MSOs could henceforth adopt the same strategy when a broadcaster raises its charges, timing it with a major telecast event.
“If this model helps the broadcasters increase their revenues, other MSOs would be tempted to take channels off packages and offer them only on a la carte. And if this goes on, there is the danger of cable losing subscribers to DTH players,” said industry veteran Mrinal Chatterjee.
STAR Sports denied raising its charges with effect from April 1 and said Hathway had jumped the gun. “We have not increased the pricing of STAR Sports channels. Channel pricing is regulated by TRAI and no broadcaster can unilaterally increase the price of a channel for just one MSO,” an official said.
Industry sources said STAR Sports hadn’t increased its RIO or reference interconnect offer price, which is the highest it can charge from any MSO or DTH player for a channel. Actual deals are struck at a price much lower than the RIO, they explained.
“STAR Sports is demanding more for the bouquet of four channels from April 1 but it is still less than the RIO of the channels,” a top MSO executive said.
Hathway is understood to have decided to fix the a la carte rate for each STAR Sports channel at Rs 14. So if someone wants to go for all four channels, he or she would have to pay Rs 56 extra a month.
Channel pricing in India is, of course, a pittance compared to what a football lover living in London has to cough up for live Premiership action on Sky Sports. The package comprises six channels — Sky Sports 1-4, Sky Sports News and Sky Sports F1 — and costs £22 (around Rs 2,200). A subscriber can choose the package only as an addition to a mother Sky TV bouquet pack that is priced £21.50 (around Rs 2,150).
Those who buy the Sky Sports Pack get a free Sky+HD box and also have the option of following the matches live on their laptops, mobiles and tablets at no extra cost.
Sources in TRAI said Hathway, which has taken off the STAR Sports channels from its package plans in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore too, was probably within its rights to do so after having intimated subscribers through newspaper advertisements and tickers on the STAR Sports channels.
“On the flip side, it is not a customer-friendly practice to inconvenience sports fans like this. They should have run tickers on all channels and not just the sports channels, announcing that this was coming,” said G.S. Kesharwani, deputy advisor to TRAI, Delhi.
Jawant Monani, a fan of M.S. Dhoni, can’t see the logic either way. “I had chosen the highest-priced package that includes all channels so that I didn’t find myself in such a situation. But I guess the cable industry will find loopholes to make their business viable,” he said.
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Additional reporting by Sushovan Sircar