Cable ops say can't pay, threaten to black out Ten Sports

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI: On the eve of the departure of the Indian cricket team to Pakistan, the heady cocktail of sports and politics is threatening to derail the Indo-Pak friendship initiatives and electoral plans of many a politician if the cricket matches vanish from a majority of TV sets in the country.

Like an expert brew mixer, a la Tom Cruise in the film Cocktail, the cable operators, led by Roop Sharma and Vikki Choudhry, today came up with a deadly mix. Their poser to Ten Sports, the government (read I&B minister Ravi Shankar Prasad) and the public, in general: What can we do if Ten Sports is arm-twisting us, the government is refusing to intervene and the (cable TV viewing) public not willing to pay any extra money for cricket?

"We have no option, but to shut shop or attempt stealing a bank to meet Ten Sports' unfair demands (on increased connectivity)," Anil Upadhaya, a cable operator from Prime Minister AB Vajpayee's constituency Lucknow told journalists today during a press conference, adding for good measure that the "present government is useless" as Vajpayee did not have time listen to the woes of the cable ops from Lucknow itself.

Upadhaya, echoing the sentiments of 30-odd cable operators from different parts of the country, further said, "If the government and politicians don't intervene, then most parts of the country would have to do without the cricket matches." Why? Unable to come to a compromise on the issue of payment, theoretically, most cable operators stand to be switched off by Ten Sports and its distribution agent, Modi Entertianment Network and both are firm on the demands on increased connectivity.

Pramod Pandya, a cable operator from Gujarat, pointed out it is was Ten Sports that is blacking cable operators who are "unable to meet the unjust and unfair demands of the sports channel." According to him, the government must intervene or would face a backlash in the forthcoming elections.

"If the government starts a Samjhauta Channel (on the lines of a bus service from Delhi to Lahore) and airs cricket on that, we'd happily show the channel at no extra cost," he grandly suggested to cheering from the crowd mostly comprising cable ops.

10-15% HIKE OK

Most cable operators today grudgingly admitted that if Ten Sports agrees to a hike in payment (due to increased connectivity) ranging between 10-15 per cent for the duration of the Indo-Pak series, they would try to manage that without passing it on to the consumer.

"The cable operators can manage a hike of 10-15 per cent, but it would amount to fleecing them if asked for payments at par with ESPN-Star Sports," Cable Operators federation of India's Roop Sharma said, adding, "They'll find it difficult if asked to cough up money for six months or one year."

Though Amarjeet Singh, a cable operator from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh, would tend to agree with Sharma, he pointed out that even a 10 per cent hike would tell financially on a cable operator like him because in the city he operates consumers would not pay up anything extra and could destroy his equipment if the matches are not shown.

Singh says that he used to pay Rs 57,000 for 12,000 connections to Ten Sports. But after the Indo-Pak series was announced, he says, the demand has gone up to Rs 250,000 for a subscriber base between 25,000-30,000. "I don't have that sort of money to pay, nor that many subscribers. There is no option but for the government to intervene," he added.

Cable Networks Association's Rakesh Dutta feels that the demands that Ten Sports is making would amount to almost a 400 per cent hike , which is not tenable. "The pro-broadcasters stance of the regulator and the government is very clear when CAS was postponed," he added.


Amidst this entire hullabaloo, Ten Sports and Modi Entertainment Network (MEN) maintained their earlier stand that the cable ops should pay up according to increased connectivity, though in Mumbai the cable operators' federation has not yet come to a final conclusion on the future course of action. MEN is Ten Sports' distributor in India.

Referring to the situation in Mumbai, where Ten is off most networks, MEN advisor RK Singh says: "The ball is in Coda's (Cable Operators and Distributors Association) court. They are the ones who have blocked our signals. We will not accept a 25 per cent increase in declaration, which is what the cable ops are asking for. If we accede to this, what we would be getting effectively is only 3 per cent of the actual connectivity."

Singh added, "What we want, as I have stated earlier, are declarations comparable to what ESPN Star Sports, Star or Sony are getting."

What does the Shiv Sena-backed Coda have to say? Anil Parab, president Coda and proprietor of Dattatray Cable, told that a meeting was held today, but no conclusions were reached.

"We have given our proposal to the government and we feel that the government should intervene in this matter. The match should be shown on DD too as it is a national channel and has a greater reach than Ten Sports. There is no cooperation from Ten Sports till now. If a mid-way is not reached, then the country will not see the matches as we will not air the channel. We hope to reach some conclusion tomorrow after the government gives its decision."

However, Ravi Singh, president, Mumbai Cable Operators' Association bared another side to the whole story when he said that the matches would be shown irrespective of Ten's latest demands.

"Right now Ten Sports has not blocked us out, we have blocked it because we are opposed to the four to five times increase in subscriber base that is being asked for. We will try to amicably sort out everything before the (cricket) matches start and if there is a problem, we will teach them a lesson after the series is over. But regardless of anything the matches will be shown."

While this soap opera is being played out, the Central and the state governments are yet to firm up their mind on the issue. A senior minister in the government told that various tactics have been tried, but "beyond a point" even the government cannot do anything as a third party's (Ten Sports) commercial agreements are involved.

Meanwhile, arguments continued in a case filed in the Chennai high court last week where the petitioner had pleaded that the court give directions to the broadcast and cable regulator Trai to see that DD also gets to air the matches. The arguments continue tomorrow.

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