Local Ban Shouldnt Stunt Cable in Pakistan

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The decision by one Pakistani province to ban cable television isn't likely to stop public- or private-sector efforts to expand that nation's pay TV industry.

Earlier this year, the national government established Pakistan Communication Ltd. to oversee the issuance of operator licenses and approval of locally based, private pay TV channels.

At present, Pakistan's pay TV programming consists primarily of India-focused or pan-Asian channels with satellite footprints that extend into the country.

Anwar Abbas, a Karachi-based independent media analyst, said the move by Pakistan's North West Frontier Province to close down local cable operators would do little to slow momentum. The government also favors the growth of local channels in order to counter those from India, Pakistan's regional rival.

Further, a Pakistani court on July 6 ruled the province's cable ban illegal, according to published reports.

In late June, North West Frontier Province shuttered local cable-TV systems in an effort to appease conservative Muslim clerics, who consider the programming a violation of religious law. The province borders Afghanistan and shares its fundamentalist Islamic beliefs.

However, many North West Frontier Province residents had become accustomed to pay television.

"Cable TV had become increasingly popular and was beginning to penetrate in rural areas," said province resident Rabie Hukmed Khan, a carpet dealer from the capital of Peshawar. "We finally got a chance to see what was going on around the world.

"People here were glued to their TV sets the whole day," he added. "This worried the clergy, who felt they would lose their hold on the populace if they gained more access to trends across the world."

North West Frontier Province residents are still able to receive Pakistan's two state-run broadcast channels, PTV and PTV World. The latter features more international programming.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's government is pushing to formally introduce and regulate cable TV. Pakistan's chief executive, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, said earlier this year that he would open the country to privately held cable and satellite channels.

The PCL has called for applications from potential channel operators. So far, more than 850 applications have been filed and 400 licenses have been granted.

Prior to the government's decision to regulate pay television, cable operators had wired 6 million homes and were providing up to 40 channels to viewers. Subscription fees range from $3.40 to $11 per month.

"We are ready to launch an Urdu-language news and entertainment channel, and have recruited 40 journalists and technicians for this job," said Imran Aslam, editor-in-chief of Pakistan's largest newspaper chain, the Jang Group of Newspapers. "We are awaiting the green light from the government."

Information minister Javed Jabbar-who also owns an advertising agency-is apparently set on allowing private networks to operate. He is generally seen as pro-liberalization.

Indian channels such as Zee TV, Sony Entertainment Network and Star TV are popular in Pakistan and have caught the eye of its advertisers. Zee TV, for example, reaches about 4 million viewers, while its sister movie channel Zee Cinema reaches about 1.8 million.

For its part, Star hopes to open a local ad-sales office in Pakistan.

"Now that we have repositioned our flagship channel Star Plus as a Hindi channel, our viewership in Pakistan will also increase," Star vice president of advertising sales and marketing Sumantra Datta said. "We are waiting to see how Star Plus Hindi is received there."

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