India May Block the Global Village of Foreign TV Six Years after the Debut of Cable and Satellite Television, Government Squares off with Private Operators over Control

Article excerpt

From his cramped control room above a stationery shop in the posh New Delhi suburb of Greater Kailash, Kamal Gera is changing the way Indians see the world around them.

Mr. Gera is a cablewallah, the Hindi slang for cable television operator. Young, brash, and immensely powerful, his company - Wave Communications - is the bane of government legislators battling for access to the world's second-largest TV market.

For the past seven years, Gera and thousands more like him all over India have been breaking with impunity the Indian government's jealously guarded monopoly over television. Armed with a couple of satellite dishes and enough cable to wire up the local neighborhood, they distribute programs like "Baywatch" and "The Bold and the Beautiful" to 12 million TV sets scattered around the country for as little as 150 rupees ($4) a month. Ever since satellite and cable television made its debut here in 1990, the government has slumbered while the industry boomed on the back of a growing economy - and an insatiable demand for news and entertainment. Federal officials have been powerless to control what is beamed down from the dozens of satellites hovering over India, apart from insisting that cablewallahs include two stations from the stodgy, state-run Doordarshan (DD) network on their service. But proposed broadcasting legislation soon to be introduced in parliament would turn Asia's freest television markets into one of the most restrictive regimes in the world, say its critics. Century-old laws drafted in the days when news was sent via telegraph would be replaced by new legislation aimed at controlling what India's 360 million TV viewers can watch. "We have to preserve our culture," says C.M. Ibrahim, the information and broadcasting minister, justifying the need to rein in satellite broadcasters. "They {private local and foreign satellite channels} didn't even have the courtesy to ask the government whether they could enter. Yes, I want to bring a law to bring them under the control of India." At a time when India is opening up its economy to the rest of the world, the new broadcast bill would make it a crime to receive an unlicensed satellite channel on a private dish. Cable TV would no longer be the cottage industry it is now. From about 40,000 cablewallahs, the number would come down to 40 or so regional cable networks. As a precondition to issuing a license, the government would retain the right to transmit information it deems is in the public interest, therefore giving it immense power to control the content of television in India. While the bill allows for up to 49 percent foreign investment in Indian satellite channels, it puts strict controls on who is allowed to own what. The only aspect of the new legislation that has been welcomed by all quarters is the right of private broadcasters to transmit their signals from Indian soil, which has been the monopoly of DD. But many cable and TV industry representatives believe the draft legislation is nothing more than a veiled attempt to clamp down on the electronic media. …