Not on TRP radar, yet govt ad windfall for Badal family channel

Can any chief minister give government advertisements to a private channel owned by his son and family members? Especially when the channel has just been launched and it has not even registered on the TRP radar. Well, this has happened in Punjab. Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s family launched a bouquet of three channels – PTC News, PTC Punjabi and PTC Chak De – in August 2008. And the government opened its coffers to it in the name of advertisements.

Not only this. The Punjab government — read the Badal Inc — allegedly allowed cartelisation of cable network distribution to ensure telecast and promotion of the PTC network. It also stopped channels which telecast anti-Badal stories. Right now, only those local news channels which project the Akali Dal in a positive light are in favour.

Competition Commission of India (CCI) has registered a case against the cartelisation in Punjab, calling it 'unfair trade practice', and is investigating the matter. Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and TDSAT are also looking into over 20 such cases across the state.

Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal’s family launched a bouquet of three channels – PTC News, PTC Punjabi and PTC Chak De – in August 2008. AFP

The Badal connection to the media passes through Orbit Resorts, which is controlled by Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. Gurbaz Media P Ltd and G Next Media P Ltd own PTC network of channels. Both are owned Orbit Resorts Pvt Ltd.

"Gurbaz Media P Ltd and G Next Media P Ltd are wholly owned subsidiary companies of Orbit Resorts Pvt Ltd. However, both Gurbaz Media P Ltd and G Next Media P Ltd are separate legal entities. He (Sukhbir Singh) is neither a shareholder nor a director in these companies. However, he has substantial shareholding in Orbit Resorts Pvt Ltd. The control of Orbit Resorts Pvt Ltd as a holding company has nothing to do with advertisements released to the PTC channels run by these media companies… Even otherwise, advertisements released to the channels run by the above media companies constitutes an extremely small proportion of the overall amount spent by the Public Relations Department on advertisements…"

This was the submission of Sukhbir’s lawyers in the Punjab High Court in response to a PIL. The PIL sought CBI enquiry into corruption charges against Parkash Singh Badal and Sukhbir Singh Badal. (Read Firstpost story on Badal Inc and Orbit connections).

Thus Sukhbir Singh admits that advertisement was allotted but the amount was miniscule. Among the electronic media, PTC network got advertisements worth Rs 78.32 lakh between 2007 and 2011, says Sukhbir Singh. Local channels like ETC Punjabi and MH1 got Rs 66.17 lakh and Rs 64.65 lakh respectively during the same period.

Moreover, Sukhbir Singh argues that he did not let the Punjab government issue any fresh advertisement from 21 January, 2009, when he took over as Deputy Chief Minister with additional portfolio of Public Relations Minister. Till 2009, his brother-in-law Bikram Singh Majithia was the Cabinet Minister for Public Relations.

Here is the catch! The Punjab government gave Rs 78.32 lakh worth advertisements during 2007 to 2008 and not between 2007 and 2011 (as claimed by Sukhbir Singh), because Sukhbir Singh had taken over in January 2009 and he categorically states that he never let go any advertisement to PTC. In fact, the official website of PTC Network of channels says that the channels were formally launched in 2008, which means that the entire advertisement amount was given just in one year. Just when the channels were launched and they needed financial support in absence of TRPs.

In March 2007, when Parkash Singh Badal formed the Akali Dal government in the state, PTC Network was nowhere in sight. ETC Punjabi was then a popular channel because it had acquired rights to telecast 'Gurbani' live directly from the Golden Temple. The deal was for 11 years and ETC Punjabi was to pay Rs 2.1 crore as one-time payment, Rs 50 lakh every year and 10 per cent of the advertisement profit share.

Orbit Resorts'-owned subsidiary companies took away 'Gurbani' rights in a deal with ETC overnight and launched PTC. ETC eventually closed its operations and many of its manager rank officials joined PTC. Gurbani gave a solid platform to PTC Network of channels. In course of time, PTC launched itself in the US and Canada with live telecast of Gurbani straight from the Golden Temple for thousands of Sikhs living in these countries. There is, however, a separate controversy over Gurbani rights and allegations that neither ETC nor PTC has paid any amount towards the live telecast to Shiromani Gurdwara Prabhandak Committee.

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Recently, the Akali Dal had given exclusive telecast rights for 'Kabbadi World Cup' and state level sports tournaments to PTC network. Several Bollywood stars, including Akshay Kumar and Deepika Padukone had descended in Chandigarh and PTC stole all the limelight. Former Hockey Olympian Pargat Singh was the Director, Sports. He has now resigned and will be contesting on an Akali Dal ticket. This is just one instance how the government helped the PTC Network reach the top position among the Punjabi channels.

The cartelisation of the cable services is a parallel story. Soon after the Akali Dal government took over, there were rapid changes in the cable network distribution front. DTH had not yet arrived and there were three networks then – Hathway (belonging to Mumbai's Rahejas), Zee's Wires & Wireless India Ltd and Digicable. Today, none of them exists. A new cable distribution network — Fastway Transmission Private Ltd — has usurped all three networks. Gurdeep Singh, owner of Jujhar Transport, which runs its buses in Ludhiana and elsewhere, is the managing director of Fastway.

According to a complaint filed by Jalandhar Cable Operator Society with TRAI (on 7 December, 2011), three new networks have emerged – Hathway Sukhamrit Cable, Datacom Pvt Ltd and Crative Cable Network. All the three companies work under Fastway from the same control room in Jalandhar, with the same logo, same set top box, same signal and same cable wires, as in other parts of the state. Gurdeep Singh holds 50 per cent stake in Hathway Sukhamrit and 99 per cent in Creative Cable Network. Annual returns, however, don’t reveal identity of some of the shareholders.

The only Sukhbir Singh’s connection with Fastway on paper (available with Firstpost) is that two shareholders of Gurbaz Media private Ltd (owned by Orbit Resorts) are shareholders with Fastway Transmission Pvt Ltd as well. They are Yogesh Shah and JS Kohli.

In his annual return submitted on 30 September 2010, Orbit Resorts Pvt Ltd and other share holders of Gur-Baz Media Private Ltd transferred shares to Yogesh Shah and JS Kohli. According to annual return of Fastway Transmissions Private Ltd ending 31 March 2010, JS Kohli and Yogesh Shah are additional director at Fastway. Both of them have Mumbai addresses. Both of them were appointed on 26 August 2010. They have nearly 49 per equity in Fastway.

Today, Fastway has 20 Punjabi channels (not satellite channels), including Fastway news. It is a cable network and it is running `news’ channel in entire Punjab with permissions of respective DMs, while one is required permission and licence from Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. To top it all, Fastway is a cable network and yet the Akali Dal government has given advertisements worth Rs 39.18 lakh to Fastway group of channels.

On the other hand, Fastway has arbitrarily stopped beaming some channels, which telecast stories against the Akali Dal, including channels like Punjab Today, Day and Night, etc.

Day and Night news channel managing editor Kanwar Sandhu told Firstpost: "We had paid Rs 1.5 crore as annual fee for telecasting our channel effectively from August 2010 and signed an agreement. The channel operated smoothly for about two months. But around mid-October 2010, we telecast a story about Finance Minister Manpreet Badal, cousin of Sukhbir Singh, who broke away from the Akali Dal. Fastway started disrupting transmission of our channel. Finally, it arbitrarily terminated the channel telecast agreement without assigning any reasons."

Competition Commission of India (CCI) has taken up Sandhu’s complaint and registered a case after finding prima facie evidence. According to CCI, over 95 per cent of the cable network distribution system in Punjab and Chandigarh is through the Fastway controlled network. In Punjab, there are 43.18 lakh television viewers’ households, out of which approximately 35 lakh television viewers households have cable connections. And all of them are under the Fastway network.

Finding it an unfair trade practice and abuse of dominant position in the market of re-transmission of TV channels on cable network, CCI has ordered detailed investigations against Fastway controlled networks. The investigation report is almost complete and is likely to be filed soon, sources say.

But CCI is authorised to take punitive action only. The criminal action for allegedly abusing political power will require a separate full-fledged criminal investigation.