The Tamil Nadu government on January 21 introduced a Bill in the State Assembly to acquire, transfer and take over the administration of the cable television network in the state, ‘including MSOs and optical transport systems’.
The applicability of the proposed Act covers Kalanidhi Maran-owned SCV, and Raheja’s Hathway. The Bill intends to keep the ‘small street-level tail end and cable operators’ outside the purview of the acquisition, since their operations are small and they function ‘at the fag end of the distribution system’.
Industry watchers present different points of view on the government move. According to a senior media watcher, the proposed Act Would ‘not come through in a hurry’, since there was lack of clarity on the powers of a state government in regulating an industry like cable TV distribution.
Admitting that the ‘concurrent list’ was a ‘grey area’ with regard to cable TV operations, some others contended that the timing of the move was explained by the Assembly elections due in a few months. Most shared the view that the issue was likely to result in yet another legal tussle.
“If and when the issue lands in court, its pursuance by the state government would depend on which party is in power in the state then. The Bill introduced now by the state law minister follows something on similar lines attempted in 2002,” shared a legal expert. The previous Bill was called the ‘Tamil Nadu exhibition on TV screen through Multi System Operators, VCRs and Cable Television Network Registration Act, 2002’, and failed to come through.
The Bill introduced in 2002 said, “A situation was created in which anyone could operate a cable TV network anywhere in the state without a licence. Further, a situation of monopoly of Cable TV trade was created and persons who already had the Cable TV network were able to collect higher monthly charges from the consumers ranging up to Rs 250 per month. But there was no revenue accrual to the government. Further, there is no licensing system to regulate and control the MSOs who control the cable TV operations in the exhibition of programmes.”
While that proposed legislation sought to bring in an effective licensing system, the present Bill seeks to go one step further. The ‘statement of objects and reasons’ for the government’s present Bill states that the ruling government, “is in receipt of numerous representations complaining about the lack of a proper Cable Network facility, the unsatisfactory manner provision of facilities, collection of excessive and prohibitive charges, with package channels being provided under heavy payment, disrupting proper telecast of certain channels, thereby preventing the public from viewing the same, selective blurring of telecast of certain channels, with threats and coercion often being resorted to by operators and distributors and operators in the process of exhibition of telecasts.”
It reasons that the executive functions of the state include not only determining policies in relation to Articles 162 and 268 of the Constitution of India, but also ‘adopting the same for the welfare of the people’. The Bill seeks to take over the physical and financial assets of SCV and Hathway (in Tamil Nadu), and also states that ‘it was not obligatory on the part of the government to retain unsuitable employees’.
The Bill, if passed, would have little effect on advertisers, shared the head of a media agency. Another suggested that with government control over the entire system, there was a possibility of some significant changes – including the resurgence of more city-centric cable channels. The future of the set top box, too, is being debated. If the takeover takes effect (and that’s a big ‘If’), the repercussions could be far reaching, share media veterans.
That is perhaps why DMK supremo M Karunanidhi, and his nephew (and brother of Sun Network Head honcho Kalanidhi Maran), Union IT and Communications Minister Dayanidhi Maran, held a meeting with the Governor of the state, S S Barnala on January 21. Soon after, the party presented a memorandum against the Bill to the Governor.
For now, it is wait and watch. And hopefully, we will get to watch all satellite channels we see now, uninterrupted through this pre-polling phase of the Tamil Nadu Assembly elections in 2006.