It had to happen, the only surprise lies in how long it took to do so. The Indian TV viewing public, that anonymous mass of TRP providers, has been paying exponential hikes in cable rentals for lending its eyeballs. Finally, we seem to have collectively realized that we do hold the remote control. Chennai, where I live, makes a particularly good case for study.
In the last six months to one year, the city has witnessed almost the doubling of its cable rentals, with monthly fees rising from Rs.150/- to Rs.250/-, and more in some areas. It might be worth noting that households in slums, who are also significant in numbers, are offered the same 'services' at the 'subsidised' rates of about Rs.100 per month.
Other problems concern both cable operators and MSOs running monopolies in the city which was, as one consumer activist put it, 'carved like a piece of meat at the butcher's table'. Starting April, for one full month, the two major MSOs in this city (Hathway and Sumangali Cable Vision) ran into trouble with their intra-cartel arrangements as a result of which, inspite of paying hiked rentals, large parts of the already irate metro went without the STAR bouquet (Star Movies, Star Plus, Star Vijay and National Geographic). Areas serviced by Hathway could not see some of the Sun group's (SCV belongs to them) pay channels. The local cable operators continued to charge the same fees and, on occasion, with another hike, insisting on the hypocritical 'we are helpless' defence.
This also came coupled with appalling behaviour from the local cable providers, many of whom had a history of unethical behaviour (cutting connections provided by rivals, bullying customers, taking money in advance, refusing to refund deposits, and not providing receipts or phone numbers for contact in case of service problems). One example which is perfectly believable since we have all encountered the feeling in different words and forms : a lady in the Kodambakkam locality asked that her cable connection be terminated since she was not interested in paying higher rentals. Later, she changed her mind since the children wanted the connection back. She asked that she be made a subscriber again and was told that not only would she have to pay her reconnection charges but 'you will have to fall at our (the cable operator's) feet and then we will do it.' As S.Padmanabhan, President of the Kodambakkam Cable TV Subscribers Association, who was even asked to report to the local police station on a concocted complaint by his cable provider (later in this story), put it, 'Do we want self-respect or do we want cable TV? That's what has to be decided.'
After sporadic reports of disagreements and skirmishes between consumers and cable operators across the city between December (when the Conditional Access System became a law) and end March (by which time there had been a sustained rise in monthly rentals, particularly with the cricket World Cup round the corner), things snowballed into something of a civic movement. Residents formed Cable TV Subscribers Associations in Velacherry, Kodambakkam and Nungambakkam. Exnora International, an NGO with over 2,000 branches spanning Chennai, chiefly dealing with keeping the streets clean and source segregating garbage, began spearheading the rebellion. M.B.Nirmal, Founder-Director, became the President of the newly-formed Confederation of Cable TV Subscribers Associations of Greater Chennai and offered to 'mediate' between MSOs and cable operators to resolve the impasse that had left large parts of the city without one or the other set of channels. They also grandly announced the launch of free-to-air channels only, in a package that would be priced at Rs.60 a month. S.Ve. Sekhar, actor, said he would start up Sankara Cable Vision, also with similiar intentions. 'Royapuram' Mano, a Congress Councillor, had been doing the same thing already in his constituency in North Chennai for almost a year now. The cable operators were not impressed.
On the contrary. In response to a three page letter which demanded redressal of grievances, a local cable operator, Sree Raghvendra Cable TV filed a complaint against the residents of Viswanathapuram in Kodambakkam. Police personnel turned up at the houses of the President of the Kodambakkam Cable TV Subsribers Association, S. Padmanabhan, the Secretary Kannan and the Treasurer Ms.Meenakshi, issuing summons that they report to the Kodambakkam R2 Police Station. Expressing shock over being pulled up for what was only a consumer issue, Padmanabhan contacted Exnora and sought the help of the media. The matter was widely reported and the charges dropped, but the incident became a flashpoint.
Says Padmanabhan, 'The behaviour of the cable operators is rude and arbitrary. There are two cable lines going over my house but I don't have the choice of one service over the other. If I ask I am told that they will give service to someone from Pallavaram or Tambaram (far-flung suburbs outside city limits) but not to me, living on the same street, because of their 'arrangement'. Then they call us to the Police Station as though we are common criminals. Had we committed murder? We had only written a protest letter saying what they were doing was illegal after the CAS law came up in December and he goes to the police saying residents were threatening him! Surely, they are cahoots with the local law enforcers. It all works like the mafia. This is daylight and night-time robbery. Anyway, we went to the press. We are deeply indebted to the media, particularly The Hindu, for reporting matters quickly. That gave us much strength. The local councillor, Chellammal, came with us to speak to the police. Charges were dropped and though we could have booked him (the cable operator) for false complaints, we did not. They think they can humiliate us and cow us down. But now we are prepared to put up our own dish antenna. Also, lot of Free To Air services are becoming available. Have you noticed how none of the Ministers - including Ravi Shankar Prasad - who came to Madras, has said anything on the subject (ongoing war between operators, hiked rentals)? What about after July 15th? All parties concerned are evasive about that. We are united now. Awareness is there. Even women attend meetings and speak up. They say, good! Now our children can study instead. Let them cut our connection! In India, where televisions are still bought for 4-5,000 Rupees, who is going to purchase a Set Top Box for 6,000 Rupees? Even the middle class will not spend that kind of money. Are they providing us with cable or wringing our neck?'
At a meeting called by Exnora on the 10th of May, speakers described Sumangali Cable Vision as a 'monopoly' and railed against how consumers had been left with no rightful choice, stressing that the focus had to be to say 'NO' to pay channels which charged exorbitantly and also raked in profits by way of advertisements (citing examples of how pay channels in the US never broke for commercials). Consumers with serious complaints of extortion were assured that Free To Air operations would be extended to their localities. Many residents expressed solidarity with the 'Say No To Pay Channels' motto.
Says Nirmal, 'We have had a very positive response from the people. They have been pushed to the extreme. One gentleman in Velachery even had his motorcycle burnt when he protested. One woman I know has tied up some aluminium rods and gets 6-8 channels! Mainly broadcasters are to blame. Have you noticed how Sun TV and Jaya TV are not pay channels? - that is because they are party (DMK and AIADMK) mouthpieces and they need viewership. This is a people's problem. Even kudusais (huts) have cable TV now. The idea of set top boxes is stupid. Let us watch Chinese cartoons instead. Why should we be paying and then watching advertisements as well? It is good that people are now seriously protesting. Eventually, pay will have to go free.'
Says Congress Councillor 'Royapuram' Mano, possibly the first man in the country to kickstart Free To Air cable services in his North Chennai suburb, 'Tamil dailies like Dina Malar have also been reporting about this issue regularly. Media has helped tremendously. It gives people courage. In my area, I found many problems. I did some analysis and found, that by spending 7-8 lakhs on equipment, I can provide FTA services. I have 500 subscribers now, for 60 rupees per month. I am under heavy pressure - lines are cut and my customers threatened. A couple of my employees have been booked with false cases foisted on them. I cannot expand my area of activity. But the big plus point is that, in my area, because of me, the other operators cannot hike rates. That is my achievement. I am the balancing factor.'
Says S.Ve.Sekhar, whose Sankara Cable Vision intends to charge the same Rs.60 for 30 FTA channels by appointing franchisees all over the city and starting operations in a month, 'Our subscriber lists will be transparent. In our services, initial charges can be adjusted against monthly fees after 6 months, if the viewer wishes to withdraw. There will be nobody knocking at your door for receipts. Cheques may be sent to our office address. I am not dealing with individuals and instead want to appoint a network of franchisees. In one week I have had 10,000 calls. I can't deal with that kind of situation - my throat is sore as it is! It is quite ironic, really. People, who have been paying quietly for years and years, now want to ask a hundred questions.'
He continues, 'The CAS will break the monopoly of the cable operators and eliminate the pay channel monopoly. That is welcome. But I truly believe that the government is losing out on enormous legitimate revenue. I sent a proposal to the concerned authorities twice. The CM is not to be blamed - I believe that, perhaps, it has not been communicated properly to her. I am saying that when the Electricity Board officials go to take the meter reading, they only have to put a tick on those houses which have a cable connection, by simple observation. Direct tax can be applied by the government. It will bring a minimum of 2,000 crores every year for the authorities. There is black money in films but not television. Why should it be there in cable? Let the money go to the Government instead. But there is a great change now. We can complain to the police. A helpline is available. We must come forward. I hope we get an encouraging response. People must not fear. Are we afraid of walking down the road or buying other things or services we need? Also, monopoly must go. Doesn't every street have three potti kadais (corner stalls), four grocery shops and two pharmacies? Then why should we be threatened if we want to take up some other cable service? Also, the CAS is being launched at the wrong time. Schools would have just reopened. Should we be paying fees, buying books and geometry boxes - or Set Top Boxes? It is totally idiotic.'
Clearly, the hierarchy of cable providers has killed the goose that laid them golden eggs. In the middle of all this, the irony of an advertisement that stares at me in today morning's neighbourhood newspaper is quite funny. It says, 'Ask your cable operator why?' It goes on to list all the standard offences - suppression of real numbers of subscribers, 'illegal stealing of signals' and so on. Although 'issued in public interest' by something called 'Adyar Consumer Association', it defends the unavailable Sun bouquet (KTV, Gemini, Sun News, Teja) too vociferously to be an unbiased party. It actually appeals, ''Hathway' is stealing KTV signals from another MSO illegally, which is a criminal offence and hence liable for prosecution. Please do not be party to it. The solution is quite simple and is in your hands. Just demand KTV etc.etc.. And if you are still not getting your favourite channels, do not pay your operator. Just change your operator.'
Sometimes, the best drama is to be seen outside of our TV sets.