Rupe, India in orbit

Gov't OKs launch of satcaster Space TV

MUMBAI — Rupert Murdoch finally got the greenlight from India’s government on Tuesday to launch his satellite platform Space TV.

Satcaster, a joint venture of Murdoch-owned News Corp.’s Star Television and India’s Tata Group, is expected to go on air before the end of the year. Space TV initially applied for a license in 2003.

The 16 billion rupee ($368 million) Star-Tata venture had faced regulatory hurdles, and the application shuttled between ministries for well over a year.

Politicos had raised doubts over the shareholder agreement and the management structure, said to be loaded in favor of minority shareholder Star, which holds 20% of Space TV. Tata, which manufactures cars and steel and develops software, among other activities, holds 80%.

Under local laws, foreign firms’ input in a venture cannot exceed 20%, while the total foreign equity holding is capped at 49%. In addition, the company must have Indian management control and a CEO who is a resident Indian.

Murdoch was in New Delhi in March to meet Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Broadcasting Minister Jaipal Reddy and allay some of their fears.

Now the global mogul has his eye on winning subscribers from India’s cable TV market, with revenues of $3.3 billion a year and a fast-growing base of more than 50 million homes in a market of 90 million TV homes.

Television advertisement and subs revenue is expected to exceed $6.4 billion by 2008, with a significant portion of the sales coming from subs, according to a recent Ernst & Young report.

“We are very excited,” said Space TV CEO Vikram Kaushik. “Both partners are committed to investing in building a high quality digital infrastructure. We believe the service will immensely enhance the choices of viewers looking for the best of pay television services in the country.”

The Indian Information and Broadcasting Ministry also issued a letter of intent to Kalanidhi Maran’s Sun TV Network, based in the south Indian city of Chennai, to operate satcaster Sun Direct TV.

This will take the number of satellite service providers to four.

Subhash Chandra’s DishTV was the first player in the market when it bowed in October 2003 and now has 200,000 subs.

Pubcaster Doordarshan launched its free-to-air digital satellite service DD Direct Plus late last year and claims a subscriber base of more than 2 million.

(Bobbie Whiteman in Hollywood contributed to this report.)