Networks of Influence

The growing power of large cable firms and the hidden extent of political ownership of them

Since the mandatory digitisation of cable distribution began in 2012, it has spurred a series of mergers and acquisitions to the benefit of large, cash-rich cable companies.
anindito mukherjee / reuters

IN 2011, DAY AND NIGHT NEWS, a small television channel broadcasting in Punjab and critical of the state government, approached the Competition Commission of India. It alleged that four companies—Hathway Sukhamrit Cable and Datacom, Creative Cable Network, Fastway Transmissions, and Wire and Wireless (India)—had formed a cartel to corner an oligopolistic share of the cable-distribution market in the state, and were refusing to carry its broadcasts on their networks. The CCI accepted that there was a case of market domination, and fined the cable firms R8 crore.

In 2015, a group of owners of small cable firms from Punjab’s Malwa region filed a case in the Punjab and Haryana High Court. They alleged harassment by Fastway in the wake of an earlier legal dispute, where they had accused the company of hindering their work, and said that Gurdeep Singh, Fastway’s managing director and majority shareholder, was a “business front” for Sukhbir Singh Badal, the deputy chief minister of Punjab. They also said Gurdeep Singh, and indirectly Sukhbir—also the son of the state’s chief minister—had control of over 95 percent of Punjab’s cable business through the four cable firms listed above. (Gurdeep Singh is the majority shareholder in Hathway Sukhamrit and Creative Cable Network, and documents from the ministry of corporate affairs and media reports establish his business links with the Badal family.) The petitioners asked the court to direct the Central Bureau of Investigation to conduct a probe, and the court issued a notice asking the agency to state why it should not. The case is still being heard.

Political ownership of cable firms, whether direct or indirect, creates at least three risks to the public interest: filtering of content based on political bias; extra-economic influences on business agreements; and meddling with regulatory mechanisms. It is widely believed that such ownership is rife in India—so much so that, in 2014, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India recommended that “political bodies” be “barred from entry into broadcasting and TV channel distribution sectors.” The risks, especially of filtering information, are likely to assume new dimensions as many of these companies move into providing internet services too. And, as we discovered through our research, the full extent of political ownership of India’s cable companies is still largely hidden from public view.

Vibodh Parthasarathi is a widely published Indian academic in the field of media studies, and maintains a multidisciplinary interest in media policy, creative industries and critical pedagogy. He is a founding member of the Centre for Culture, Media and Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia.

Alam Srinivas has been in journalism for three decades, during which time he has worked with leading newspapers and magazines, and on numerous academic projects. He has written several books, including Storms in the Wind, on the Ambani family.

Keywords: censorship media television digitisation Policy Cable distribution