Indian Cable Ops Strike Over New Rules

New Delhi, India-India's cable industry rode a regulatory roller coaster late last month, when operators staged a three-day strike over new legislation and the country's top media regulator was replaced.

Cable operators in northern India staged the strike-during which they ceased all transmissions-to protest a new law that held them accountable for content telecast over domestic and foreign pay TV networks.

The operators, joined under the banner of the Cable TV Operators United Front (CTOUF), called the legislation "lopsided and vindictive."

They called off the strike after the government assured them that programmers would also be held accountable for what they air. Nonetheless, the law puts them in a tight spot, since the government also recently banned adult programming and alcohol and tobacco ads.

"The operator's role would begin only after the government had notified a particular satellite channel for violating its programming code," former Information and Broadcasting minister Arun Jaitley told reporters.

If the strike weren't enough, Jaitley was replaced on Sept. 30 by Sushma Swaraj. This is Swaraj's third stint as the top TV regulator. Jaitley now runs the Ministry of Law, a position he also held while heading information and broadcasting.

Most foreign programmers have agreed to adhere to the adult programming and alcohol/tobacco-ad bans. Sony Entertainment Television and Star TV, two leading foreign-owned programmers, have told the government they'll honor the ban after they fulfill existing commitments to advertisers.

India-based programmers are subject to domestic laws that have never allowed alcohol and tobacco ads. Adult programs were permitted between 11 P.M.. and 6 A.M., but these were also banned in the recent amendment.

"The onus of adhering to the code should be placed on the shoulders of the satellite broadcasters, and not on us," CTOUF president Kalidas Khanna said. The average Indian operator currently provides more than 70 channels-almost too many to keep up with, Khanna noted.

Operators were also fearful that pay TV channels-which in India are any services that charge a carriage fee-might be banned from running advertisements, a major source of network income. They also claimed that market economics have forced them to absorb carriage fees, rather than pass them on to subscribers.

"Today, there are almost 25 pay channels, charging an average of eight rupees [$0.17]," said Rakesh Datta, an independent cable operator based in New Delhi. "But the viewer continues to pay 150 rupees [$3.25] per month in subscription fees. The money being earned [by networks] from ads is not a small figure."

Citing industry estimates, Datta said pay channels here earn about 7 billion rupees [$152 million] a year in ad revenue.

Copyright issues also stoked industry fears. Cable-system executives said much of the problem exists because the rights to many old Hindi-language films have been sold a number of times and, in some cases, to several parties.

"The licensing authority needs to document whose rights are with whom," said independent cable operator J.S. Kohli. "Every time an operator buys a particular movie, the producer must give us a written affidavit saying that if we run into a problem, he will be held liable."