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Why you don't get some TV channels

Shuchi Bansal in New Delhi | March 11, 2005

Quick, how many of you receive some of the newly-launched television channels on your screens at home?

Chances are that the majority of you may not have seen Disney's two children's channel, CNBC's consumer affairs channel Awaaz, Zee Business or even Hungama, UTV's children's channel.

And if cable TV industry experts are to be believed, the bandwidth available on India's cable TV networks is choc-a-bloc and any new channel in the pipeline may meet the same fate (read: no visibility).

The extremely skewed demand and supply ratio has sent the delivery cost (read: carriage fee) of satellite channels, free-to-air or pay, skywards.

Some of the new news and lifestyle channels that are lucky to be visible are said to have forked out between Rs 60 lakh (Rs 6 million) and Rs 10 crore (Rs 100 million) to multi-system operators and independent cable operators to buy prime band space on their cable distribution networks. Note that the fee buys visibility for a year only.

"It is an awful mess," says Ashok Mansukhani, Hinduja TMT's executive director, referring to the distribution industry. "Too many channels are vying for space. It may be creating an opportunity for some operators to cash in on the demand."

Adds Vikki Choudhry, an independent operator with a network in south Delhi: "We try and accommodate as many channels as possible but the fact is that bandwidth has got exhausted. What do we do when channel owners ask us for better frequencies?"

Choudhry says that broadcasters purchase frequencies according to their preferences and pocket. "It's like passengers choosing the class they'd like to travel in and paying accordingly." For a couple of years now, a carriage fee has been the norm for the free-to-air channels.

However, with the increasing clutter caused by new channels, even pay TV channels in the news and entertainment segment have had to purchase better frequencies to keep competitors at bay.

But the subject is sensitive to broadcasters -- those contacted by Ice World wished to stay out of the story. "It's a very small world and the distribution team does not want to comment on the situation," said the head of a pay channel.

However, he added that to restrain its new rivals, the channel was willing to purchase better frequencies in markets that matter to its television rating points (TRPs).

In fact, a popular Hindi entertainment channel is also said to have compromised on its subscription revenue from a cable operator for a better band.

Reasons a cable distribution expert who's worked with a couple of Hindi language channels: "Pay channels, getting edged out of the premium bands, are now asking for better allocation of bandwidth for better TRPs. Some are willing to negotiate on their paid connectivity for better frequency."

He says that a large section of cable TV homes still own black and white TVs or sets that can take up to 16 channels.

"The moment you are shifted to a lower band, you lose out on viewership, no matter how good your programming is. You cannot generate TRP for something which is not seen," he says.

To understand the commotion in the television distribution industry, it is important to look at the logistics of bandwidth. An ideal or optimum analogue cable distribution network has a 850 megahertz capacity.

This can accommodate about 102 channels. But for that to happen, this capacity available at the MSO head-end should be replicated at the cable operator's end.

"That is usually not the case as most cable operators have a 550 megahertz capacity that supports about 65 channels," says a Hathway executive.

In fact, even the prime band that broadcasters covet cannot hold more than nine channels. Officially operators are supposed to reserve three frequencies on the prime band for Doordarshan.

Some frequencies on the colour band, that follows the prime band, are also garbled owing to disturbance FM radio airwaves and the radio paging industry.

The answer to the cable distribution industry's mess is "faster digitisation," according to Mansukhani. With the help of a digital network, a cable operator can bung in up to 12 channels in the space that one analogue channel occupies.

"Besides, purchasing frequencies may no longer be required as the picture and sound quality of channels across the spectrum will be the same," explains the Hathway executive.

Essentially, the digitisation process means that the cable operators will need to upgrade their infrastructure to send digital signals to cable TV subscribers.

"Most MSOs had already invested in digital infrastructure when the government had proposed the mandatory conditional access system," says Mansukhani.

However, again for digitisation to take off, the subscriber should be willing to bear the cost of the digital set-top box. "We can show up to 1,000 channels if subscribers are willing to invest in a box," says the Hathway executive.

MSOs and broadcasters alike are hopeful of some solution soon. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India is holding an open house on the digitisation of cable TV services in Delhi on March 16.

This will be the first time that all the stakeholders -- cable operators, MSOs and broadcasters -- will come together to discuss the issue.

With the good bands have already been sold out, even broadcasters with loads of money to spend on reach will have to wait in the coming months till the contract of already existing channels gets over and they are unable to fork out much more cash for carriage.

Meanwhile, cable operators are making hay while the sun shines. They are busy negotiating carriage fees and frequency allocation rates with the broadcasters.

Vikki Choudhry says that the independent operators in south Delhi have already formed a consortium to negotiate deals with the broadcasters. The cable TV homes reach of the consortium makes it as powerful as some of the MSOs, he feels.

"After all, considering our high cost of operating and maintaining the distribution network, the carriage fee and some local advertising is the only cushion we have," says Choudhry.

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