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Ten Sports demands parity with ESS on sub base; Mumbai cable ops set for token blackout

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MUMBAI: With Cas all but officially dead, it has not taken long for the cat and mouse mind games to start between the cable ops and pay broadcasters. The first conflict, not surprisingly involves Ten Sports.

Even as the Dubai-based Ten Sports gets set to telecast the historic tour of Pakistan by the Indian cricket team after 14 long years, the cable operators, again not surprisingly, are crying foul. While the Abdurrahman Bukhatir-promoted broadcaster has asked for a major increase in the number of subscriber declarations, the MSOs are refusing to play ball saying the cable ops are not cooperating.

However, speaking to Indiantelevision.com, Mumbai Cable Operators Association president Ravi Singh expressed confidence that a deal regarding the increase in subscription base would be worked out. "We will however be having a token one day strike tomorrow 6 March to protest against the channel's tactics. We will do our best to ensure that the Mumbai viewer is not deprived by negotiating with the broadcaster. As of now they are asking for a four to five-fold increase in the subscription base."

Modi Entertainment Network (MEN), which distributes Ten Sports in India, counters that what it is asking for is parity with other pay broadcasters like ESPN Star Sports, Star or Sony.

Speaking to indiantelevision.com, advisor to MEN (and former India head of ESS) RK Singh, said, "We are not asking for the moon here. Even keeping aside the fact that we have exclusive telecast rights to this historic tour, it needs to be remembered that since its launch, Ten Sports while maintaining its per subscriber rate at Rs 14, has added great value in cricket terms by securing the rights for not just Pakistan, but also the West Indies and Sri Lanka." ESS, Singh pointed out, charged almost thrice that of Ten at Rs 39.70 but did not have that much more to show for it in cricketing terms. Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and England are the major countries in the ESS kitty, in addition to minnows Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

Offering his perspective on the situation a representative from an MSO who asked to remain anonymous said that pay broadcasters should understand that distribution carries a high cost in terms of support staff, cables, amplifier equipment." Coda (The Shiv Sena- backed Cable Operators and Distributors Association) collects the money for us and if they do not agree to the broadcaster's terms then there is nothing we can do. Our hands are tied in the matter. We are not running a charity outfit for the benefit of the Indian viewer. As it is our outflow is going up and we are suffering losses. 60 per cent of the cost of any pay TV channel comes from the distribution side. The broadcaster basically just has to pay for the telecast rights."

Putting things in perspective, Singh says, "ESS has a paid subscriber base of 600,000 in Mumbai at Rs 39.70 per subscriber point. Ten Sports at a far lower price of Rs 14, is however, only getting paid for 140,000 subscribers." Where was Ten being unreasonable? he asks,

A cable operator who works for Siticable took a different point of view. He alleged that for an event like this the broadcaster could ask for anything between 20-25 rupees per connection. "This blatantly unfair. Due to the Trai order we cannot pass on the additional burden onto the consumer."

A Hinduja spokesperson, meanwhile, took a more guarded approach saying that a course of action had still to be decided upon. "Before a major cricket event comes on this problem always crops up. In an environment where addressability is absent we cannot get into the number games with the cable operator. So how can a pay broadcaster ask for more money? If we agree to do what Ten Sports is asking for then we will have to pay the extra amount out of our own pocket. This is why we have been pressing hard for CAS to come in as it would have brought in transparency."

Singh dismisses the Hinduja argument thus. "MSOs have problems (of collections) where there are intermediaries. In Mumbai however, InCableNet has 125,000 direct points. And what are they paying us for? - 24,000 subscribers." Highlighting the disparity that exists, Singh points out that ESS has a paid subscriber base of 225,000.

Asked how he would respond if political pressure were brought to bear by the likes of Coda, which had the backing of the Shiv Sena (known for its strong arm tactics), Singh said that MEN was in constant touch with all political parties, including the Sena, arguing its case.

"No parity, no deal", appers to be the line that Singh is taking. And he remains confident that come 13 march, which is when the first One-Day International will be played, all the operators will have signed on.

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