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DTH operators write to TRAI over broadcasters offering pay channels on DD Free Dish

The operators are demanding that channels’ free or pay status should hold across platforms.

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Mumbai: Direct-to-home (DTH) service providers including Tata Sky and Airtel Digital TV have written to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) asking the telecom regulator to address the issue of broadcasters making their pay channels available on Prasar Bharati’s FTA platform DD Free Dish.

According to the DTH players, this goes against the current tariff regime which mandates the designation of channels as either pay or FTA and prohibits their bundling together. Tata Sky and DTH players want that such designation remains constant across distribution platforms, a matter they had requested the TRAI to look into earlier as well, but to no avail.

It is being alleged that despite the above mandates and guidelines, broadcasters such as Zee, Sony, Star, Viacom18 and others continue to exploit loopholes to make their second-tier channels like Zee Anmol, Sony Pal, Star Utsav and Colors Rishtey available for free on DD Free Dish in order to increase their reach beyond the pay universe and get more advertising dollars. However, the same channels are present on private distribution platforms as pay channels, in accordance with their MRP filing with TRAI.

DTH operators say that the practice is highly discriminatory as not only are the private DPOs paying the broadcasters to distribute these channels, but also charging subscribers for the same. On the other hand, DD Free Dish receives a license fee for making them freely available to viewers.  

Reviving their demand, the DTH players have requested the TRAI to level the playing field for the public service broadcaster and themselves in this regard.

Tata Sky CEO Harit Nagpal says that he is not against these channels being free nor is he asking the broadcasters to pull them off DD Free Dish, but asking for a level-playing field and parity. “We are just demanding that if these channels are available as free on DD Free Dish, it should also be the case on my platform. There are about 20 FTA channels on DD Free Dish that are being offered to my viewers at a price anywhere between ten paise - three rupees, which is highly discriminatory," he says.

Responding to the TRAI’s contention of DD Free Dish not being covered under NTO, he says that the regulator misses the point here. “This is not about DD Free Dish, but the channels,” states Nagpal.

A senior official from a leading cable operator remarks, “I am not sure but the broadcasters may be taking advantage of a legal loophole where TRAI cannot regulate DD Free Dish which comes under Prasar Bharati. A channel that is allotted a slot on DD Free Dish may immediately gain 50 GRPs while FTA channels not on the free DTH players are struggling at seven GRPs. That’s the advantage of DD Free Dish.  Broadcasters slowly want to move pay-TV subscribers away from the value chain. In urban markets, they are going direct-to-customer by distributing their channels on their OTT platforms and in rural markets, they are opting for DD Free Dish. This practice boosts both advertising and subscription revenues for broadcasters.”

Calling the unfair practice a “double whammy” for DPOs, he reveals that TV broadcasters are ready to pay Rs 8-16 crore in advance to be allotted a slot on DD Free Dish. “They are paying an enormous carriage fee and not charging a subscription fee for their pay channels on DD Free Dish whereas on cable and DTH operators they are paying much lower carriage fees and are charging a subscription fee. It’s a complete double negative.”

It is important to note here that as per the new tariff order, 1.0 carriage fees on DTH and cable operators are capped at four lakh per month. According to TRAI performance indicator report Jan-March, DTH subscribers declined by 1.4 million at the end of March. 

The unnatural growth in the number of pay channels on DD Free Dish has unbalanced the equation for cable and DTH operators. “Reports say that 40-50 per cent of the urban markets are already on OTT platforms. The rural market is still growing where broadcasters are trying to cut out ‘middle men’ like cable and DTH operators. This will slowly lead to the decline of the industry in five to ten years,” he reckons.

Like Nagpal, he also demands that either the broadcasters should pull their pay channels from DD Free Dish or they should make those channels FTA for all DPOs. If there is parity on all platforms, no one will complain. 

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