On Sunday night, television viewers across Nepal browsing channels on their satellite and cable systems suddenly found that they could not access their favourite sports channels, BBC News, as well as many Hindi entertainment programs.
On the eve of Dasain, the government decided to enforce the rule requiring television distributors to provide advertisement-free foreign channels. Suddenly, 120 of the most popular channels got blacked out of the cable menu.
The Ministry of Communication and Information said it had given satellite and cable operators one year’s notice to implement its ‘Clean Feed’ policy, and it had to stop the distribution of foreign tv channels that contained commercials.
The theory is that customers should not be charged for television programs that contain advertising, but between the lines the directive had a nationalistic rationale against Indian commercials. In June, Nepal got distributors to delete most Indian news channels from their feed for airing content that was derogatory towards Prime Minister K P Oli.
There was also an argument that Clean Feed would encourage Nepal-based content and upgrade the quality of Nepali commercials. However, most analysts say that will take time, and for now it will be Nepali viewers who will be deprived of the most popular channels, and have to pay more expensive cable tariffs.
“So what if the government says its decision is final? We have not been able to bring in the necessary equipment needed for clean feeds,” said Sudhir Parajuli of Subisu Cablenet. “And the foreign channels also have to be ready to beam us programming without commercials. It’s not entirely up to us.”
Direct-to-home satellite and cable distributors say they have been negotiating with international channels to provide clean feeds, but not all of them have complied, while others have cited delays caused by the Covid-19 crisis.
“They are working on the technical details of providing the clean feed, some are in the testing stage, and a few of the channels should be back on air in a few days,” said Dhruba Sharma of the Nepal Cable Television Operators Federation.
The Federation had asked for a six-month extension in implementing the Clean Feed provision, citing the pandemic. The Indian Broadcasters’ Forum, Discovery Network, BBC News and others had also requested the Ministry for an extension to work out the technical details, but the government decided not to grant that.
While advertising agencies have generally welcomed the decision, the government’s move has been greeted by outrage from the public in social media, mainly because it was enforced during Dasain, and also while most people have been forced to stay home because of the rapid spread of the coronavirus in Nepal.
“The children do not have school, and we are all confined to our homes because the virus is everywhere, and watching television was a way to pass the time, now the kids cannot even get to follow the sports channels anymore,” complained Putali Tamang of Dhobighat.
Among the popular channels affected are all those under Star Sports, Star Sports Select, Star Plus, Discovery, BBC, Colours, and others. The ban has hit hardest Nepali fans of the English Premier League, Indian Premier League, and other football and cricket games.
All news and entertainment programs under India’s Zee banner, Sony, HBO and Cinemax are still available because they do not carry commercials. Al Jazeera is also still being beamed, and CNN is also available depending on the distributor.
What this means is that while the monthly fees for satellite dish or cable may not go up right away, as the agreements with various international channels are renewed, operators will be forced to pass on the added cost of commercial-free programming to Nepali customers. Of the 90 pay tv channels, 60 are said to be completing their technical preparation for clean feeds.
The government’s argument is that international channels that charge Nepali customers through their local distributors should not also be making money from commercials. It says this follows the international practice that if customers pay for a feed, it should not carry commercials.
However, the government seems to be unaware that many Nepalis are now paying for live streaming of sports events and entertainment programs through the internet. The Clean Feed policy also does not include IPTV, which does not need any permission to beam uncensored content directly to Nepalis through their internet service providers.
The Android IPTV box is becoming popular, and allows ISP customers to bypass distribution via cable and satellite.