Fastway Transmissions Private Ltd. regularly makes news.
When Punjab deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal, who is also the president of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), was recently asked to comment on opinion polls telecast by TV channels, he said nonchalantly that he does not believe in such opinion polls.
He may know better because on an earlier occasion he had claimed that any party can get such polls in its favour by making appropriate payments. He had also said that he was regularly approached by some channels for telecasting favourable results.
Credited with micro-managing and shaping his party's election strategy, Sukhbir has emerged as a master at media management. Besides the old trick of carrots and stick, he has developed a personalised strategy to deal with the media. He has managed to extend virtually total control over the telecast of entire electronic media through cable networks and has built bridges with those who matter within the print media. He personally calls top editors and reporters and even visits their homes, besides giving generous advertising support to their newspapers.
But the main tool through which he is believed to control the telecast of TV channels is through the cable network, Fastway Transmissions Private Ltd. It controls nearly 80 per cent of the cable network business in the state. The company had acquired a number of other players in the field and the remaining are small players who generally go along with the directives they receive.
It is important to note that cable networks account for 70 to 80 per cent of TV viewership in the state leaving the rest to DTH networks.
The modus operandi is to either provide weaker signals to the "non-friendly" electronic channels or disrupt signals whenever anything negative appears on these channels. The company has its own channel which blatantly sides with the ruling coalition government and blanks out the opposition parties.
There is, however, a disclaimer to these allegations : there is no direct evidence of the links between Sukhbir Badal and the owners of Fastway Transmissions Pvt Ltd. The only tenuous link appears to be the fact that the owner of this company is a former employee of Sukhbir Badal's transport business. He has categorically denied any involvement of the Akali leader with his company and has threatened to file defamation cases against those who persist in linking the two.
Sukhbir Badal too denies any link but admits that the PTC, which includes TV channels for news and entertainment, are owned by a company in which he has a major stake. The only aspect that links the PTC channel with Fastway Network is some common directors in the past.
Fastway Network came into the limelight following a dispute between it and the Day & Night channel, the first and the only serious regional channel devoted to news from Punjab. The Channel, which was subsequently forced to go into hibernation, had alleged that it was being provided weak frequencies and that its telecast was deliberately disrupted by the Network because it was critical of the SAD government.
Day & Night News subsequently moved the Punjab and Haryana High Court which gave it temporary relief but directed it to go to the telecom disputes tribunal, TDSAT. TDSAT ruled in favour of Day & Night News and imposed a token fine on Fastway. Day & Night News also went to the Competition Commission of India (CCI) with a grievance against Fastway's monopoly on Punjab's cable. It won there too. The CCI imposed a fine of over Rs 6 Crore on Fastway, but this decision was overturned by the Competition Appellate Tribunal (COMPAT). The CCI itself felt that the COMPAT had erred in its decision, and challenged it in the Supreme Court, where it is still pending.
For a brief while the Network also got into a confrontation with the Zee Group which runs a Punjabi channel. The issue was sorted out after the intervention of Zee owner Subhash Chandra who took up the issue with the NDA government at the Centre.
Another channel, ETV, which runs a regional channel for north India, had to retreat from Punjab and now focuses only on Haryana and Himachal. Yet another news channel for Punjab by the prestigious ABP Group, ABP Sanjha, had to abandon its plans on the eve of its launch and retrench about 200 employees after it reportedly failed to get cable carriage in Punjab.
With the electronic media taken care of, the government had been devoting its attention to the print media. Barring a couple of honourable exceptions, the government has been able to arm twist several newspapers. It has also been equally generous with its doles as advertisements.
In the last six months it has gone in an overdrive releasing full page and even centre spread advertisements. Simultaneously the government has stepped up advertisements to the online media.