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Maharashtra stares at possible 3-hour cable TV blackout today as LCOs flex muscle

Consumers in the state could be deprived of their favourite TV channels from 7-10 pm

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MUMBAI: Cable operators across the country, and particularly in Maharashtra, seem to have upped the ante in their confrontation with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) over the new tariff order that will be applicable to the broadcast sector from 29 December 2018. At a protest gathering in the city on Wednesday, the Cable Operator and Distributors’ Association (CODA) called for a cable TV blackout from 7 to 10 pm today.

The cable operator fraternity has taken affront to the TRAI formula that dictates the revenue sharing model. As per the regulator’s math, MSOs and LCOs will split the network capacity fee (NCF) of Rs 130 in a minimum 55:45 ratio, with no share for the broadcasters. Consumers will have access to 100 FTA channels, including 26 mandatory Doordarshan channels, by paying the NCF. For pay channels, broadcasters will pocket 65 to 80 per cent of the MRP with the MSO and LCOs sharing the rest in a 55:45 ratio.

“The protest is about two things, one is the price hike which is going to affect the customer and second the revenue share. The cable operators must get 40 per cent and the remaining 60 per cent should be divided between the broadcaster and the MSO,” said CODA’s Anil Parab.

Apart from the sector regulator, the Maharashtra cable operators seem to have trained their guns at the Star India Network too. There’s a protest planned at Lower Parel’s Urmi Estate, which houses the Star India office, at 2 pm on 28 December. Not just that, LCOs say they will also refrain from pushing Star’s channel pack to consumers.

“We are boycotting Star India channels. We are going to sit outside Star office in Lower Parel on 28 December at 2 pm. We will not book Star India channels initially,” added Parab.

The reason for their ire at Star is the broadcaster’s alleged refusal to meet and negotiate with cable operators.

“All the broadcasters except Star are in communication with us and are willing to sit across the table to iron out differences,” Maharashtra Cable Operators’ Federation committee member Asif Syed told Indiantelevision.com.

He also said that dissuading consumers from opting for the Star pack won’t be all that difficult given the personal equations LCOs share with most of them.

“It takes about a week to change the viewing preference of consumers. We have first-hand experience of this,” he added.

While the distribution ecosystem is now up in arms, it was Star India that fought the TRAI tooth and nail in the Madras High Court and then the Supreme Court over the tariff order.

In private conversation, however, some operators agree that they should have voiced their concerns on the matter ahead of time. The last-minute agitations may not yield the desired results, but the faction-riddled cable fraternity is determined to put up a united front.

“We demand that the revenue sharing should be around 60 and 40 per cent. 60 per cent of the pay channel revenue should be shared between the MSOs and the broadcasters, and the remaining 40 should purely go to the LCOs. On the FTA channels, minimum fee of Rs 20 should be taken by the MSO for carrying channels up to the LMOs headend, as after that he distributes on his own network. 80 per cent of the networks where FTA channels are carried are in the hands of the LCOs. 20 per cent of the FTA channels revenue should be given to the MSOs,” argues MNS Cable Sena VP Jagdish Joshi.

While the LCOs are spoiling for a fight, MSOs don’t seem to be wanting a piece of the action.

“The protest is about the amendments in the sharing revenue model on pay channels and want it to be changed to 60:40 from 80:20 currently. There is no support from us,” a member of the senior management of a national MSO told Indiantelevision.com on the condition of anonymity.

This protest isn't just a Mumbai phenomenon. LCOs from over 30 associations across the country descended on New Delhi’s Jantar Mantar on Wednesday asking TRAI to amend the tariff order.

The Vadodara Cable Operator Association, joined by their counterparts from Ahmedabad, called for a complete blackout on 28 December night to let their displeasure known to the regulator during a gathering at the Gandhinagar Gruh.

In Hyderabad on Tuesday, the Old City Cable TV Operators Welfare Association threatened to blackout paid channels and stop payments to MSOs if they were compelled to pay based on the new tariff regime.

“We are not against the tariff order; we just want some amendments to be done before the implementation. As per the trends going in the country, if the revenue share is very unfair, nobody is ready to do business in the country,” Joshi concluded.

Stepping up its efforts to enable a smooth transition, TRAI said it is preparing a detailed Migration Plan for all the existing subscribers. On Wednesday, the regulator issued a circular allaying fears of a potential blackout.

“The authority has noticed that there are messages circulating in the media that there may be a black-out of existing subscribed channels on TV screens after December 29, 2018. The authority is seized of the matter and hereby advises that all broadcasters/DPOs/LCOs will ensure that any channel that a consumer is watching today is not discontinued on 29.12.2018. Hence, there will be no disruption of TV services due to implementation of the new regulatory framework,” the circular said.

Earlier this month, filed a petition seeking clarification on the issue of 15 per cent cap on discount on a bouquet price of TV channels to consumers that had been set aside by Madras High Court while upholding TRAI’s right to regulate the broadcast sector. The matter will be listed when the top court resumes post the winter break in January 2019. There’s another case being heard in the Delhi High Court involving Tata Sky, Airtel Digital TV and Discovery India that will be heard on 10 January.

The LCOs are closely monitoring these matters. They also don’t rule out raking up the ongoing issue with the TDSAT. For now, however, they intend to show their might to TRAI and the broadcasters as the country prepares to adopt a new tariff regime. It remains to be seen what impact they can conjure up.

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