Chennai: Tamil Nadu’s cable operators are hurt by chief minister J. Jayalalithaa’s bid last week to break the distribution domination of Sun TV Network Ltd—a media group connected to her political rivals and which owns hugely popular south Indian channels—by resurrecting an ailing state-owned cable service.

The service, Arasu Cable TV Corp. Ltd—a rival to Sun Cable Vision, or SCV (formerly Sumangali Cable Vision), which is allied with Sun TV and controlled by the Maran family—launched last week, but without Sun’s popular channels.

Ironically, that forced some customers to move to Sun’s direct-to-home (DTH) service. Meanwhile, advertisers are watching the development closely to see if they should suspend advertising on Sun TV.

“It’s still early days and this cable (Arasu) is just about getting established," said Rajendra Prasad, who heads media buying company MEC’s south India operations. When there’s a marginal dip in the audience, “they are switching back to SCV in some places. We are just waiting for things to stabilize so we can take a call".

“At this point of time, we have no comment," said a Sun spokesperson.

Jayalalithaa’s government launched Arasu Cable TV on 2 September, and said that more than 34,000 operators had signed up for the service. Many operators who shifted to Arasu, which currently offers only free-to-air channels, are regretting the move, saying they are bleeding customers who are switching to DTH services—which allow satellite signals to be beamed directly to end-users’ dish antennas—to resume watching Sun TV and other pay channels.

Arasu is now in the process of expanding its offering, said an executive. “We are holding talks with all pay channel providers," the corporation’s managing director, M. Jayaraman, said. “Sun is part of the total package (being considered)."

Once deals were finalized, the respective pay channels will be available to subscribers within a week, Jayaraman added.

Sun is the most popular channel in Tamil Nadu. According to the TV consumption tracker TAM Media Research’s data for the week ended 3 September, Sun TV had 43% viewership among Tamil channels, with the next most popular channel at just 12%.

According to S. Senthilkumar, who operates Senthil Cable Network in Thanjavur, Sun Direct— the 1,900 crore Sun Network’s DTH service—has been holding roadshows, offering hefty discounts.

In a survey of dealers in Thanjavur this week, the town’s cable operators’ association found that 3,500 satellite dishes had been sold in just four days since Arasu was launched, Senthilkumar said. He claims to have lost 10% of his 400 subscribers after he shifted to Arasu.

Anatomy of a fight

One of Jayalalithaa’s first initiatives upon taking charge as chief minister was to end the near monopoly in the cable business enjoyed by SCV.

The Sun Network is promoted by her arch rival M. Karunanidhi’s grand nephew, and former textile minister Dayanidhi Maran’s brother, Kalanithi Maran.

Arasu Cable TV was originally started by Karunanidhi in 2008 to break the Marans’ monopoly on the cable business. But after his strained relations with the Marans took a turn for the better, the venture was discontinued.

Local cable operations in Tamil Nadu are unorganized, territorial businesses with uneven pricing, a fact that had rankled with customers. Operators had in turn cited cost pressures from channels, and had welcomed the state’s decision to step in, according to P. Sakilan, president of the Thamizhaga Cable TV Operators General Welfare Association. But most of those who switched to Arasu were ruing their decision, he said. “We’ve been set 20 years back. These are people used to watching more than 100 channels," he said. “This is like a ration shop offering low-grade rice and wheat."

He estimated that the state has about 50,000 mid-level and last-mile cable operators.

While Arasu may need the Sun bouquet of channels to retain the initial enthusiasm of cable operators, media watchers say the Sun Network may need Arasu just as much. “People in Tamil Nadu will not take any cable service without the Sun TV Group channels because it has a huge fan base there," said a Mumbai-based media analyst who declined to be named, citing company policy. “The government’s network will not work without Sun TV and Sun also needs that reach to ensure their business (runs smoothly). Otherwise there will be a big impact because ultimately advertisers pay you to reach the people."

Shares of Sun TV fell 1.73% to 296.15 on BSE on Thursday, while the benchmark Sensex rose 0.59% to 17,165.54 points.