For over a fortnight now, lakhs of television viewers in the city have been unable to watch paid-for entertainment thanks to a chaotic corporate war involving broadcasters, multisystem operators (MSOs) and local cable operators. The feud is fallout of the switch from analog to digital cable networks which concluded on April 16.

Broadcasters are demanding that MSOs start paying them the subscription amount for the paid channels now that the digitalisation process is complete. But the MSOs are dependent on local cable operators as they are the ones who collect user fee from households and other establishments that subscribe to the networks.

“But we have not yet collected any money from the subscribers. How do we pay?” says Patrick Raju, president of the Cable TV Operators’ Association. He says that less than a month after the digitalisation drive was completed, broadcasters started switching off their signals and demanding payment. “We have already incurred a huge expense by providing set top boxes to subscribers. We can’t be expected to pay now,” he said.

However, V.K. Somashekhar of the consumer group Grahak Shakti says that MSOs and cable operators cannot hide behind such excuses. “Before digitalisation, it was not possible to count the number of subscribers. In that period, cable operators and MSOs made huge, illegal profits by understating the number of connections. Let them pay the broadcaster from their illegal kitty.”

T.S. Sashi Kumar, general manager of Hathway, one of the largest MSOs in the city, said: “We recently completed installing set top boxes. We provided the customer with a subsidy of Rs. 1,200 per box. That subsidy was borne by us.”

He says the process of collecting customer data is still on and it will take another month at least to install the data into a customer management system. “Only then can we start charging them the subscription fee.”

Coming to life again

In fact, Hathway, which connects around six lakh TV sets, was the worst affected by the impasse. Media Pro Enterprise Ltd., which broadcasts a bouquet of around 40 channels including those from the Star and Zee networks, had switched off Hathway’s connection. However, subscribers reported that most of the channels are up and running now.

While there was no official reaction from Media Pro despite requests from The Hindu, a company representative requested anonymity and said: “Every MSO should get into a fresh agreement [post-digitisation] with Media Pro for continued reception of channels.”

While Media Pro’s action against Hathway affected to widest group of television viewers in the city, similar actions have been taken by broadcasters against other MSOs as well.

A group of seven MSOs — including Hathway, Incable, Den Cable, Siti Cable, Kable First, Kaizzen and You Telecom — wrote to all broadcasters on May 25 seeking to “bring harmony and sanity in the digital addressable cable and broadcasting business in the city of Bangalore”. The desperation among MSOs can be gauged from the fact that many of their heads have switched off their phones to avoid answering calls from cable operators who are in turn under fire from subscribers.

Negotiations

Cable operators and even the managements of certain regional entertainment channels have attempted to play a role in the negotiations. Mr. Patrick Raju says that with each passing day more customers are abandoning them and moving to DTH operators. “Those who have moved to DTH have been lost to us forever. People don’t like switching these things often,” he said.