Satellite television broadcasting in Tamil Nadu is entangled in a cobweb of cables. Unlike other States in the country, where cable distribution of TV channels is a commercial operation of competition (healthy or unhealthy), the situation in Tamil Nadu is complicated by the fact that several Tamil satellite channels owe their allegiance to, or are owned by, political parties.

Until last year, there was a private monopoly of cable distribution in the State, making broadcasters dependent on the monopolist. After the change of Government, the Tamil Nadu Arasu Cable TV Corporation Ltd (TNACTCL) was revived with a laudable intention of democratising channel feed to all broadcasters.

Resuming operations in September 2011, TNACTCL has become active in 31 districts of Tamil Nadu except Chennai, and hopes to offer its service in Chennai before the Union Government’s deadline of November 1 to digitalise the distribution in the four metros. The number of channels it offers to consumers differs in different districts within its bouquet of 106 channels.

There are about 40 licensed Tamil satellite channels now, which are owned by 20 legal entities, some of them operating multiple channels. Some of them are “Pay-Channels” where the cable operator collects payment from the subscribers and pass that on to the channel through the Multi-system Operator (MSO — in this case TACTV). Most others are Free-to-Air (FTA) Channels.

After distributing several channels (both FTA & ‘Pay’ categories) of its choice during the last 10 months, TNACTCL has now floated a tender, asking interested channels to quote what carriage fee they are willing to pay for different frequency bands in which they wish their channels to be carried.

There are some basic flaws in this process that rails against the principles of natural justice. A group of Tamil satellite broadcasters has appealed to TNACTCL to abandon this tender which was floated without consultation with the stakeholders, and to evolve an amicable formula to allot the frequency to the different channels.

The argument of the State public sector company is that as there are over 600 licensed TV channels in the country, they would like to take the tender-auction route to determine which channels are accommodated in their distribution platform.

The counter-argument of the Tamil satellite broadcasters is that priority should be given to the Tamil channels and the auction route abandoned. Their legitimate fear is that the auction-tender route will result in not only all the cash-rich Tamil channels dominating the scene but also Hindi and other language channels outbidding the smaller Tamil channels thereby driving the smaller Tamil channels out of the market. Morally, the State should not substitute a private monopoly with its own monopoly.

Given the circumstances, it is desirable that TNACTCL functions as a public service to take all the Tamil channels to the people of Tamil Nadu in a just and equitable manner charging probably a small service fee to cover their organisational costs and overheads.

By asking the broadcasters to pay on the one side and the consumers to pay on the other, TNACTCL is unwittingly replicating the very model of an unfair and unethical private monopoly of crony capitalism that the government justifiably sought to eliminate.

There are in particular, two absurdities in the tender floated by TNACTCL. The first is to expect successful bidders to pay carriage fee with retrospective effect from October last, a factor which most broadcasters had not accounted for in the first place; the other is to expect that in every frequency band all bidders will match and pay what the highest bidder has offered. In fact, the whole idea is skewed in favour of the prosperous, entrenched channels and against the interest of channels devoted to any niche audience and the late entrants in the field.

It is not that there is not enough space to accommodate all the FTA Tamil channels. Perhaps, they can be assigned different frequency bands through an equitable formula, and every six months or so, the allotment of slots could be determined through drawing of lots. In order to get resources, TNACTCL may fix a premium fee for Tamil “Pay Channels” and for those channels other than Tamil and English — which are the predominantly viewed language channels in the State.

It would be in the public interest for TNACTCL to abandon this tender, rework the formula in consultation with all the stakeholders, keeping in mind the freedom of expression of the electronic media which cannot be allowed to be dominated by only those with high financial resources.

Dr. S. Krishnaswamy is an internationally acclaimed documentary film-maker, recipient of Padma Shri and founder of the recently launched Krishna TV — a Tamil-English ‘Heritage’ Channel devoted to arts, history, spirituality and culture.