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ESPN MD on the Tata Sky spat
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June 06, 2008
With its three sports channels - ESPN, Star Sports and Star Cricket - getting dropped from the basic bouquet of direct-to-home (DTH) operator Tata Sky, ESPN India is exploring legal options against the DTH operator.

ESPN has also shot off letters to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and the broadcast regulator Trai as over 2 million Tata Sky subscribers are not able to watch the three sports channels.

Currently, Tata Sky and ESPN Software India are engaged in a legal battle and the issue is before TDSAT as well as in the Delhi High Court.

R C Venkateish, managing director, ESPN Software India, talks to Ashish Sinha on the ESPN-Tata Sky spat. Excerpts:

Why are your three sports channels not available to about two million Tata Sky subscribers?

They were certainly available till May 31. From June 1, Tata Sky dropped our premium sports channels from the basic bouquet thereby depriving millions of sports lovers access to our sports channels. We have advertised across the country in the print media clarifying that it is because of Tata Sky's new packages that our channels are not available to the viewers.

Because of Tata Sky's actions, we have had to clarify. At one go, Tata Sky has removed all our sports channels under the guise of providing 'choice' to the consumers whereas the fact is that consumers will now have to pay more to watch the same content than what they paid till May end.

How do you plan to bring back the channels to the basic bouquet of Tata Sky?

We are seeking the necessary legal remedies. There are just grounds of taking Tata Sky to court but I cannot share the details at this juncture. We have also written letters to the I&B ministry and to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai).

But what pains us is to see millions of sports lovers (who are also the consumers of Tata Sky) not being able to watch quality tennis and soccer matches currently being shown on our channels.

Trai advises that for DTH all pay channels must reduce their rates to 50 per cent of the non-CAS cable rates. You have not followed the advisory.

Sports channels require huge investments because the telecast rights to important sporting events do not come cheap. We have tried to explain our position to the regulator and  shall continue to do so.

For the new DTH operators, we have, in fact, agreed to price our channels at 40 per cent of the non-CAS cable rates if they can assure 0-2.5 million subscribers within the first year of their commercial launch.

If they achieve more than 2.5 million subscribers in the first year, we will offer 50 per cent of the non-CAS cable rates based on volume discounts. These are commercial terms and conditions that work on mutual negotiations.

We have got the right to do business and that can only be done when the market forces come into play and there are minimal regulations. That's the way it is across the world. Sports channels are expensive to produce and operate and that is the point we are trying to emphasise.

Tata Sky has said that this move will provide a much wider choice to its consumers. Isn't it within its rights to make packages for its consumers?

Our quality sports channels are present in the basic bouquet of Dish TV too like they were on Tata Sky till recently. The new DTH players (Big TV and Bharti) may also include these in their offerings to their subscribers.

The point is that our sports channels have a mass appeal and they are not 'niche' or 'special interest' channels as is being depicted. Instead of blacking out our channels at one go, Tata Sky should have asked its subscribers for their feedback before shifting them out of the basic to an add-on bouquet.

Tata Sky's statement on the matter:

When contacted, Vikram Kaushik, Tata Sky MD and chief executive, shared a press-statement which said that according to the Delhi High Court, ESPN cannot disconnect or disrupt the signals provided to Tata Sky.

Excerpts: "The commercial terms between the parties would finally be decided by the TDSAT and there is no stay against Tata Sky offering any revised base packs to the consumers and no stay against offering of ESPN channels in a separate package to the consumers, which is supported by the Trai regulations. We have offered to pay ESPN for every single subscriber who chooses to opt for their channels. Our market research studies have confirmed that consumers want lower subscription prices. This can only be achieved by giving the average consumer the right to choose their programs/packages...Almost all broadcasters other than ESPN have accepted the Trai guidelines that recommend that content prices should be made available to DTH platforms on a-la-carte basis to give subscribers more flexibility. Tata Sky is simultaneously taking up with Trai to take sternest possible action against ESPN for their patent violation of the regulations. Tata Sky is evaluating all legal options, including prosecuting the ESPN functionaries for the patently false and misleading advertisements carried by them in the newspapers today."

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