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OPINION

An open letter to Shri Prakash Javdekar about digitization and cable TV pricing 


Since you are showing keen interest and tremendous enthusiasm in taking cable network digitization to every nook and cranny of our vast nation, I feel a need to inform you about a few hard realities of this business. I suppose you are not prodded by the broadcasters’ lobby/cartel to go full throttle in this regard and what weighs heavily on your mind is the interest of the aam janata.

Now, here are some points for your kind consideration:

1. Compulsory digitization of the cable network was a move prompted by the broadcasters’ lobby led by James Murdoch of the Star group, the corrupt and wily son of Rupert Murdoch. He is keeping a low profile these days after certain events in the UK proved that he has a criminal bent of mind and has the penchant to blatantly subvert the laws of the land using his reach in the corridors of power. The Murdochs are notorious for using their TV networks to influence the political and electoral processes of nations and they do it rather blatantly.  They have tried to do it in India as well.

2. It was probably one of those extremely rare cases where a technology (Analogue) was banned by a government fiat. Compulsory digitization affected the government-owned DD the most as its exclusive terrestrial network based on analogue technology was rendered obsolete. It must have cost the DD quite a bit to switch over to the digital technology.

3. The main argument for compulsory digitization was that it would bring about addressability in the cable distribution business. This was a move that was only going to help broadcasters and bring the entire TV industry under their sway and control.

4. The move was antagonistic to consumers. As soon as complete digitization takes place, they will be at the mercy of broadcasters. With the cross-ownership of cable networks by TV networks, they will be forced to pay exorbitant fees to have access to TV programmes and content.

Sir, the sole responsibility of your government is to protect the interest of the consumer. While dealing with various lobbies, you should bear in mind the following salient points:

1. The initial and subsequent investments in developing Cable TV infrastructure were made by the lay consumers and not the broadcasters. 

2. The broadcasters used this infrastructure to develop a clientèle for their programmes that in turn brought them advertising revenues.

3. They got into this business out of their own volition and knew of the risks involved and the issue of addressability was never their concern at that time.

4. Since the cable networks carried their content to the consumer, they were justified in charging a carriage fee that helped them upgrade their systems to reach the signals of a burgeoning number of broadcasters in cable homes.

5. The business model of the broadcasters was never ‘subscription’- driven. It was advertising-driven. It still is. Demand for a share in the ‘subscription’ revenue came later. They bemoaned the losses incurred by them and sought government intervention and surprisingly they got what they wanted.

6. It was a scam and a conspiracy against the consumer that defied free market logic.

7.     They came in to the market following a certain set of rules and then they conspired with the TRAI and the I&B Ministry to change those rules to earn unprecedented windfalls and bonanzas at the cost of the consumer.

8. They put the onus of saving their businesses on the GOI and succeeded in convincing it that they must be saved through a govt. fiat that puts them in the driver’s seat.  

9. And now they are clamoring for the repeal of the CAS regime that puts a cap on subscription charges.

So, while you pursue the cause of digitization, you must also pursue the cause of the consumer. That should be the only objective of your government. And the cause of the consumer will be best served when he gets access to the best of channels paying nothing or as little as possible.

You must negotiate on behalf of the consumer alone. It’s the consumer who has invested his hard-earned money in the cable networks which developed because of  enterprising local entrepreneurs, and with no help from the government. The consumer also pays a substantial monthly fee for the upkeep of the cable network, even more than what he pays for other essential services. He pays for the set-top box as well that he must have in the compulsory digitization regime.

If the broadcasters wish to reach him, they should access this cable network without charging any subscription fees. They must also pay carriage fees for using the network. This money can be used by the cable networks to upgrade their technology from time to time.

The government should also initiate the move to end the cross-ownership of Multi-System Operators (MSO) and Last-Mile Operators (LMO) by broadcast networks. MSOs and LMOs should function as consumer-owned co-operatives. In fact, cross-ownership of any kind in the film and TV Industry should be discouraged and prohibited. Look at the Hathway Cable network owned by Star. It ensures that the signals of the channels in the Star bouquet get prominence over DD channels in terms of bandwidth and reception quality. 

The broadcasters who insist on subscription fees to provide their signals, should stop using the cable networks and move over to other subscription-based digital platforms like DTH. The cable networks will continue to relay FTA (Free To Air) channels in cable homes. It will also provide other digital services like Internet to consumers for a reasonable charge. The government should also initiate a move to issue licenses for DTH platforms separately.

So, let me repeat again. You can go ahead with the digitization process but you must understand that the only interest your government needs to serve is that of the Indian consumer, the aam janata.

You MUST NOT BE brow-beaten by smart lobbyists and charlatans, paid for by the broadcasters’ cartel, who come to you with arguments like, ‘If India has to have world-class TV programmes, it must remove control over cable pricing and let the market determine it.’  This is pure bullshit. Had  'free market' been their concern, they would not have lobbied for compulsory digitization. You should tell them point-blank that they can only access Indian households through the cable network if they provide the best possible signals of their programmes free of charge and also pay carriage fees to the cable network. If it does not suit them, they should move over to other platforms or shut their shop. The quality and cost of their programming is not and cannot be your concern.
You must also ensure that TRAI follows your line of reasoning.

The TRAI officials are prone to get easily swayed by the lobbyists of the broadcasters’ cartel.
This is for your information and necessary action,
With warm regards

Rajesh Kumar Singh