Jan. 21: The Jayalalithaa government today launched the first bid in the country to nationalise the cable television distribution network, churning an industry that revolutionised infotainment and stunning the Opposition DMK which is associated with a channel.
A bill has been tabled in the Tamil Nadu Assembly to let the government take over private cable television service providers, referred to in the industry as multiple service operators and optical transport systems. The legislation exempts the last-mile small cable operators.
The bill provides for a government company that will acquire all the equipment and machinery of cable TV distributors against an amount that will be decided by a state-appointed “payment commissioner”.If the bill is passed, the government will have a stranglehold on the network that pipes news and entertainment to hundreds of thousands of homes across the state.
Two big operators ' Sumangali Cable Vision and Hathway ' are named in the bill. But the prime target is said to be Sumangali, the leading distributor owned by Sun TV’s Kalanidhi Maran, the great nephew of DMK leader M. Karunanidhi and brother of Union communications minister Dayanidhi Maran.
The government justified itself by citing “public interest”. It claimed having received “numerous complaints” that cable networks did not provide proper facilities or service, overcharged consumers and “disrupted” or “blurred” the telecast of certain channels.
Some operators had been accused of unduly favouring associate channels by banishing rival networks to remote slots where reception is poor.
The Opposition has smelt in the bill a political conspiracy to muzzle the media before the mid-year Assembly elections. The DMK also fears that the reach of Sun would be choked.
The DMK rushed to governor S.S. Barnala and asked him not to give assent to the “undemocratic” legislation. Among those who met Barnala were Karunanidhi and Dayanidhi.
Cable operators outside Tamil Nadu reacted with either dismay or caution, wondering whether the move would give similar ideas to governments in other states.
The reaction within Tamil Nadu reflected the political affiliations but some analysts said the bill would help break the “monopoly” in cable distribution. Many private television channels eyeing a share of the Tamil Nadu viewership pie, till now at the mercy of the big guns, are said to be relieved.
Representatives of Sumangali were not available for comment. K. Jayaraman, the managing director of Hathway Datacom, owned by the Rahejas, said: “I have not received any papers. I can only comment when I do so.”
One area of concern for operators is a clause linked to employment. “It is not obligatory' (for) the government to continue with unsuitable employees' with regard to their age, integrity and qualification,” according to the 40-page bill.
The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), which deals with cable services, said it was not aware of the legislation. “We will have to study the bill first and see whether Trai comes into the picture. We will examine it on Monday,” the watchdog’s chairman, Pradip Baijal, said in Delhi.