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Colombian Systems Form Buying Group

Cartagena, Colombia-Cable operators here have banded together to establish this country's first program-buying organization.

The Bogota-based group, known as Multiservicios Para Operadores S.A., "aims to obtain more favorable deals with international programmers," said its head, Alberto Pico Arena, who described himself as the group's "promoter."

Multiservicios has not yet appointed officials, according to Pico, although its members include 17 cable operators with some 200,000 subscribers.

The member operators were previously "informals," or unlicensed cable systems that flourished at a time when there were virtually no rules governing the industry. However, a government cable-licensing effort last year aimed to legalize the huge informal sector, which boasted an estimated 4 million cable subscribers. Pico said all of Multiservicios' members have acquired official licenses.

For now, programmers are taking a cautious approach. Before working with any organization, "we look at whether it has a valid license, is paying its bills and is giving us accurate [subscriber] numbers," said Mary Pittelli, COO of the Television Association of Programmers (TAP) Latin America, a trade group that represents global programmers in the region. "Multiservicios has to prove all those things. It's not there yet."

Colombia's newly licensed industry is still in such a state of flux that most programmers are adopting a wait-and-see attitude toward new groups such as Multiservicios, Pittelli added.

Pico is a well-known figure in Colombian cable and president of a national media organization called the Chamber of Television, Communication and Recreation Entities. However, he is probably best known as an outspoken representative of so-called community operators, which have stirred up plenty of controversy.

The community operators are meant to be non-profit entities, but some have been accused of operating as commercial businesses. Pico has insisted that the problem lies not with the community systems, but with the National Television Commission regulatory agency.

He alleges that the commission is mistakenly differentiating between commercial and community systems when each should operate as an "open-market" business.