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April 23, 1997


STAR and Zee are currently at the early stages of a rather messy divorce and Zee sees no reason to strengthen STAR's hand

C M Ibrahim At the same time as the aviation policy was being hotly debated, C M Ibrahim, in his capacity as minister for information and broadcasting, dropped another bombshell.

For some time, Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation Limited had been planning to introduce DTH broadcasting. After the success of DTH in Britain, Murdoch had similar plans for India. They began to gain momentum after the former director-general of Doordarshan, Rathikant Basu, took over as CEO of STAR TV's operations in India.

As DG, Doordarshan, Basu rooted the idea of DD starting its own DTH service from Malaysia's MEASAT satellite. That idea did not fructify during Basu's tenure and after he left, Doordarshan seemed to have lost interest. Besides, the agreement with MEASAT expired in August 1996.

STAR TV, meanwhile, had been doing some homework and in November last year, it had begun negotiating for its DTH project. The I&B ministry too received a proposal from STAR that envisaged DD's involvement in the project. But Ibrahim scuppered this. His ministry prepared a draft Broadcast Bill which only allowed DTH services to commence after they were licensed by the government.

Rupert Murdoch In effect, this delayed STAR's project almost indefinitely. The Bill has still to be introduced in Parliament. It will take months to pass. After that a Broadcasting Authority will be set up. This will call for bids and then issue two DTH licences. It can then finally launch its DTH service after a huge delay. Ibrahim did this even though he knew STAR was ready to launch next month.

STAR claims -- off the record, of course -- that all this has been done at the behest of Zee TV's Subhash Goyal. STAR and Zee are currently at the early stages of a rather messy divorce and Goyal sees no reason to strengthen STAR's hand.

The problem with legislating against STAR is that Zee is also a satellite operator, so any legislation against STAR would hurt Zee. So, Ibrahim decided to concentrate on KU-band transmissions -- on which DTH signals are received -- rather than C-band which is the frequency used by normal satellite operators.

The I&B ministry has evolved elaborate licensing procedures which make it impossible to receive KU-band signals until the licences are issued. These licences would be handled by the department of telecommunications but Ibrahim spoke to Telecom Minister Beni Prasad Verma to delay the issue of licences till the Broadcasting Bill is passed.

STAR TV thought it had found a way around Ibrahim. Last month, it held a preview of I SkyB, its DTH service provider, for a huge gathering of press people. If the government wanted to fiddle around with the KU-band, they demonstrated they could operate DTH on the C-band. This is the transponder used by existing cable networks and in accordance with the Cable Networks Regulation Act.

When news of the preview reached the I&B ministry, there was panic again. Ibrahim asked the Cabinet secretary to call a meeting of the secretaries in the department of telecommunications, law and I&B to find a way out. "They may consider banning digital transmission itself," an official at the I&B ministry said. As no DTH service is possible without digital technology, that could end STAR TV's ambitions.

R Basu At his press conference, the civil aviation minister referred to a 1995 Supreme Court judgment in the case of Union of India versus Cricket Association of Bengal. While ruling on the case, the judges observed that private broadcasting was a matter of policy and hence up to Parliament to decide.

"When the right to private broadcasting is not available to Indian citizens, the question of such rights claimed or asserted by any foreign company does not started without the law," said Ibrahim.

STAR TV argues that DTH is only a method of transmission, a new technology. As the content will be similar to what satellite channels are already allowed to telecast, it makes no sense to act as though a new technology contravenes a Supreme Court judgment.

While there are arguments for and against both proposals, there is no denying that Ibrahim has managed to get his own way. On the DTH proposal, there is no real opposition within the government because few people understand the technology involved.

But the Tata-Singapore project is quite another matter. The Tamil Maanila Congress and the DMK are aggressive supporters of the scheme. Moreover, the prime minister is also believed to have assured the Tatas that he would try and push it through.

Subhash Chandra At the Cabinet meeting where the proposal was discussed, then external affairs minister Inder Gujral, then finance minister P Chidambaram and Industry Minister Murasoli Maran all argued in favour of it. Nevertheless, Ibrahim was able to have it squashed.

Apparently, he succeeded because he staked his own relationship with Deve Gowda. And it also helped that with the government in a precarious situation, the then prime minister felt that he could not afford to antagonise the Left who had openly opposed the project.

The new government may well reverse that decision. And the DTH proposal may go ahead if Deve Gowda and Ibrahim are out of office. But for the time being at least, C M Ibrahim has got what he wants.

Kind Courtesy: Sunday magazine

What the Tata-SIA and DTH projects are all about

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