Foreign channels with ads are off air in Bangladesh. Who will clean the feed?

The government order to suspend the broadcast of foreign TV channels with advertisements has pushed Bangladesh’s cable TV industry into uncharted waters.

The TV stations do not want to send a clean feed to Bangladesh because it is a small market, while cable operators do not have the technology to cut the ads from the feed, according to people in the industry.

The distributors and cable operators on Friday stopped the broadcast of at least 60 foreign channels that air advertisements following orders from the information and broadcasting ministry. They include BBC, CNN, Star Sports, TEN Sports, Zee Bangla, Star Jalsha, SonyLIV, which are very popular in Bangladesh.

Amid a debate over the issue, Information and Broadcasting Minister Hasan Mahmud said the government will not prevent the distributors and operators from airing foreign channels with a clean feed. Owners of Bangladeshi TV channels have welcomed the decision. The distributors and cable operators say more time is needed to air foreign channels without ads.

HOW CAN A FEED BE CLEANED?

The government passed the orders to block the channels by Sept 30 in line with the Cable Television Network Act. Although the law bans advertisements aired through foreign channels, the distributors and operators have been broadcasting the channels. 

The government took steps to block the foreign channels with advertisements six months ago, but the initiative was delayed. After the government launched a mobile court drive on Oct 1, the distributors and operators blocked the foreign channels altogether as they did not have the technology to cut the ads to make the feed clean.

SM Haroon-or-Rashid, a former director-general of state-run Bangladesh Television, said clean feeds are aired in two ways. The channels provide the distributors of some countries with clean feed. The distributors can also clean the feed by cutting the advertisements.

In Bangladesh, the distributors apply to the ministry to air foreign channels. The ministry then makes its decision in consultation with BTV, which reviews the feed.

WHY AREN'T BROADCASTERS PROVIDING BANGLADESH WITH CLEAN FEED?

Haroon said the Indian TV stations provide Saudi Arabia and other Middle-Eastern countries with clean feed and no Indian ads, prioritising Arabian content. “They broadcast only Middle-Eastern advertisements there, even by dubbing into Arabic. The broadcasters must not give whatever feed they have to a big market like Bangladesh.”  

The former DG of BTV said the advertisements aired in Bangladesh by foreign channels are different from others. “You won’t see them even in Kolkata. It means they are giving the ads targeting the viewers in Bangladesh.”

But ABM Saiful Hossain, managing director of distributor One Alliance, claimed the foreign channels do not want to send a clean feed to Bangladesh because they consider it to be a small market.

“They don’t want to bear the cost of cleaning the feed for Bangladesh. In Saudi Arabia, the US or England, the customers pay $25 per month for the service. We provide it at only Tk 150 to Tk 200.”

Saiful, former president of the Cable Operators Association of Bangladesh or COAB, said the digitalisation of the sector will increase the revenue of the government along with the income of the broadcasters and the distributors. “They [broadcasters] may change their mind after that.”

One Alliance contacted Colours Group after the government order, but the broadcaster said they need time to send a clean feed, according to Saiful. “If the government does not give us time, we will turn the switch off. We won’t have any opportunity but to shut the business.”

WHY CAN'T DISTRIBUTORS DO IT?

The foreign channels are broadcast in Bangladesh through four distributors. Media Care Limited distributes the channels of Zee Network, Sony Group, TEN Sports and Discovery Group. The channels include Zee TV, Zee Bangla, Zee Bangla Cinema, Sony TV and Sony LIV.

Nationwide Media, a sister concern of Bengal Group, distributes CNN and Cartoon Network. Afsar Khair Mithu runs Nationwide Media.

Jadoo Vision, owned by the late Dhaka North Mayor Annisul Huq, holds the distributorship of Star Jalsha and other channels.

One Alliance distributes Colours Group channels.

The distributors add the downlink from the foreign channels and forward the feed to the customers via the cable operators.

Tech experts say the responsibility to clean the feed lies with the distributors if the broadcasters do not provide the feed without advertisements. Cable operators are only a media.

Distributors in Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan and many other countries broadcast programmes by cleaning the feed, why are Bangladeshi distributors not doing it?

The distributors said they lack the technology to clean the feed as the sector is not fully digitalised yet. It is difficult to clean the feed if the technology is not digitalised. The sector cannot change overnight, it needs time.

GOVERNMENT SAYS IT GAVE TIME

The government notified the distributors about the ban on foreign channels with advertisements in April 2019. The distributors blocked Zee Network channels for a day at the time after failing to clean the feed.

The government then gave them until July 2019 to broadcast clean feeds. In an interview with bdnews24.com at the time, Nationwide Media’s Afsar said they would be able to air clean feeds in Dhaka and Chattogram in two years and the rest of Bangladesh in five years.

He said they would need to set up the technology at each customer’s home to cut the advertisements and fill the gap with promos of programmes or government advertisements.

He could not be contacted for comment on the progress in the process.

One Alliance’s Saiful said they could not make progress in the process due to a lack of digitalisation, and the coronavirus pandemic. He said it would take one and a half years for them to clean the feed.

He also said the government should have taken a firm position two years ago and hold talks with the foreign channels first. “We are only a media. This [clean feed] would have been possible now if the government had pushed for it harder two years ago.”

DISTRIBUTORS' AND OPERATORS’ DEMANDS

Saiful said the digitalisation of the electricity billing system has made the work easier, and it will happen to the cable TV industry if the system is turned into digital from analogue.

The distributors and operators also urged the government to waive the duty on the import of technology required to clean the feed.

Former BTV director-general Haroon said the distributors will need a “huge” amount of money to set up the servers to cut the advertisements.

The distributors sought funds from the government to pay the cost.

“The cable operators never got any bank loan. We should be given loans and the sector should be declared an industry,” said Saiful.

According to him, they will need to set up devices, such as chips, decoder boxes, and satellite transponders, at about 570 control rooms.

HOW ARE BANGLADESHI CHANNELS BROADCAST ABROAD?

BTV launched a broadcast in India through Doordarshan DTH-DD Free Dish in September 2019.

Haroon, who was heading BTV at the time, said they provide India with clean feed. Some programmes, such as Ityadi, are sent with advertisements but the DTH-DD Free Dish server cuts the advertisements before broadcast.

“If we can give them clean feed, then why can’t they? BTV doesn’t get clean feed while broadcasting the Olympics. We air the Games by cutting the advertisements, although it delays the broadcast by 30 seconds or a minute.”

BTV World does not get many advertisements as BTV National does. When BTV National programmes are aired through BTV World, the authorities broadcast the government’s awareness campaign in place of the advertisements.

“It can be done in both ways [in Bangladesh or abroad]. But the cost must be kept in mind if we do it in Bangladesh,” Haroon said.

No matter how Bangladeshi channels are broadcast abroad, no country airs Bangladesh’s advertisements, according to him.