Rupe out of loop in India

Broadcasting Minister Swaraj nixes appeal to change rules

BOMBAY — Rupert and James Murdoch have been bowled out in their attempts to get the Indian government to change the rules for the cable industry and for direct-to-home services.

On Friday Rupert Murdoch had a private meeting with Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj in which he urged her to step into the row over rising cable prices and nix an industry proposal for conditional access; proposal would allow viewers to pay for the channels they want rather than be forced to pay for every web on offer.

Murdoch claimed DTH could be as cheap as cable, with a starting price of $6.50 a month for the basic package, and asked the minister to make the import of set-top boxes tax-free. Murdoch estimates his service will have 5 million subscribers in three years.

India’s cabler operators and Murdoch’s Star have been at loggerheads over rising subscription rates, especially when a cricket match approaches.

Cable operators blame Star, which has the exclusive contract for some overseas matches, and in the past, Star has threatened to cut off viewers in this cricket-crazy nation because operators have not made their payments.

But Swaraj nixed Murdoch’s appeal. The government has recently allowed 100% direct foreign investment in other sectors of film and television but not DTH, which had a 20% foreign ownership cap slapped on it last year. It is unlikely Swaraj will remove it so soon.

The minister also said Murdoch’s Star group should look for a compromise with cable operators rather than try to bypass them by launching DTH.

Meanwhile, James Murdoch, at the inaugural session of cable confab Frames 2002 (Films Radio Audio-Visuals Music Events and Shows) in Bombay on Thursday, accused the cable industry of underreporting the number of subscribers.

In an evening session, Rupert Murdoch again lobbied against the conditional access system and suggested direct-to-home as a way to get around the cable mess.

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