Many areas in West Bengal are in the danger of facing television blackouts with cable TV operators going broke due to a sharp drop in the collection of subscription fees amid the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown.
The cable TV operation has been kept under the purview of the lockdown as the government considers “constant flow of essential and authentic information” through various media is essential to ensure public order and safety during an unprecedented pandemic.
Earlier this month, the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, in a letter, asked television broadcasters and cable TV operators to ensure uninterrupted supply of their services in the interest of viewers in these “difficult times”. The West Bengal government too instructed cable TV operators to continue providing services the next month even if users did not pay the subscription fee.
But cable operators claim that providing an uninterrupted supply of their services is becoming difficult, primarily due to two reasons — a drop in the payment of subscription fee and shortage of spare parts to restore the damaged lines. As per the figures provided by the apex body of the cable operators in West Bengal, about 80 lakh people in the state watch television through cable TV networks.
Collection of the subscription fee from the customers started plummeting from the last week of March, said Shankar Mondal, the president of the Biswa Bangla Cable TV Operators Union. Until May 1, a whopping 40 per cent subscribers did not recharge their subscription, while another 35 per cent opted for a basic plan of ₹154 (inclusive of taxes) to avail only free-to-air channels.
Before the lockdown, only 5 per cent users used to opt for basic packs, according to the union’s record. Besides the minimum package of ₹154, there are four more popular packages priced at ₹250-260, ₹330-350, ₹380-400 and ₹460 to 490. In Kolkata, 70 per cent of the users used to get the first two packages. But many users have currently downgraded their package, Mondal said.
On average, a large cable operator in the state has around 1,500 to 2,000 subscribers. Mondal said a cable operator would get 10 per cent of the plan’s price. In monetary terms, a cable operator has incurred a revenue loss of at least ₹35,000 to 40,000 last month. There are 38,000 cable operators in the state and they employ around five to six people.
“Though our revenue has dropped, we have not got any relief from the multiple system operators (MSOs). We have to pay them upfront to activate any channel package whereas they (MSOs) get 30 to 60 days credit from broadcasters,” Mondal said.
He added that the operators had appealed to the broadcasters for some discount on the package as no new contents were being provided. MSOs have been urged to provide credit for at least two to three months to tide over the crisis. “If some relief is not provided immediately, I am afraid services might get disrupted in many places, particularly in suburban and rural areas, which are the worst hit by the crisis,” Mondal said.
Besides the drop in income, many subscribers also cite repeat telecasts of old serials as one of the reasons for not recharging their cable subscription.
“We mostly watch Bengali serials on the television. But since no new episodes are being aired, there is nothing for us on the television. So, this month I have taken the minimum package of ₹154, which will allow us to see some free channels,” said Kamal Koyal, a van rickshaw puller in Barasat, near Kolkata.
Besides, the weather is also playing killjoy, cable operators said. “This is the season of Nor’westers. In heavy storms and rains, several of my subscription lines got damaged. But I am unable to repair them because of non-availability of spare parts, as hardware shops are closed,” said Pradipta Karmakar, owner of the New Madhavpur Cable Network, Santoshpur in North 24 Parganas district.