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Jamaican Government Clashes with its Regulator over Cable TV

Jamaican Government Clashes with its Regulator over Cable TV

Marcia Forbes PhD

Cable TV on Fast-track to Where?

Sometimes things move at amazing speed in Jamaica and the wider Caribbean. At other times the snail-like pace is excruciating. Take the matter of cable TV and signal piracy. After about 30 years since the emergence of this phenomenon across the region, it has finally been elevated to real public discourse in Jamaica, with cable TV consumers, cable operators, the regulatory body (Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica – BCJ) and the Government publicly arguing their respective positions. Suddenly Cable TV-related matters seem to be on a fast-track, but to where?

As noted in one of my earlier articles on this matter, at an April 24th Press Conference the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica issued a directive to cable operators. Come the end of May, 2015 these operators are required to remove nineteen (19) of 98 (ninety eight) pirated channels. The directive, you will notice, only apply to approximately 20% of cable channels which the BCJ reported are being pirated. The end of May is almost upon us and a great deal has transpired since that directive was issued. Much of what has transpired, however, has left many asking, “Where are we now?”

Government of Jamaica Intervenes/Interferes

On May 6, the Government of Jamaica through the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) issued a press release titled, “OPM Clarifies Media Reports About Unlicensable Cable Channels”. This is available via the website of the Jamaica Information Service, the government-owned public relations machinery. In that release the OPM appeared to throw its regulatory body, the BCJ, ‘under the bus’ as the expression goes.

The opening salvo of that press release was, “The Office of the Prime Minister wishes to clarify assertions made in the media about impending regulatory action pertaining to unlicensable cable channels.” Unwritten but clearly understood from that release, especially when coupled with ‘on the ground soundings’, was that the BCJ had operated beyond its remit and that no cable operator would be required to lock-off any of its ‘pirated’ channels.

After all, as the release noted, “there is a clear commitment to achieve compliance in a manner that does not lead to instability in the sector” and furthermore, “negotiations at the regional level are expected to commence shortly”. That’s a part of what I mean by throwing its regulator under the bus since the release intimated that the BCJ’s directive would lead to “instability in the sector” and furthermore, the matter would be addressed at the regional level “shortly”.

Clash between Regulator and Office of the Prime Minister

Then there was the screaming front page headline of Jamaica’s leading daily newspaper, “Cable clash! Illegal access to US networks puts OPM and Broadcasting Commission on collision course”.

That newspaper story highlighted an unseemly ‘he said, she said’ argument between the Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) (under which the Information Portfolio sits) and its regulator, along with information that advice was sought by the OPM from the Attorney General’s Chambers, apparently as it related to the manner in which the BCJ went about issuing its directive to cable operators re lock-off of illegal channels.

The whole thing sounds very untidy and seems to smack of political interference against the backdrop of early national elections expected to be called in Jamaica and the Government not wanting to lose votes or to upset voters. ‘Instability in the sector’ is a nice ‘political speak’ euphemism. Then too ensuring ‘stability’ by turning a blind eye to about 30 years of cable piracy is precisely what has led Jamaica to where it now stands, with this country on a ‘cable pirates’ watch list by the USA and subscribers believing that they’ve been dupped into paying a lot more than they should for access to premium cable TV channels.

The Broadcasting Commission Responds

By May 18th Chairman of the BCJ was reported to have said that the end of May lock-off directive had not been altered and that the regulator acted within its remit. Note though that, the Executive Director (ED) of the BCJ was more measured in his response. Although he stated that no decision had been made to push back the end of May deadline for lock off of the 19 channels being aired without permission from the copyright holders, the ED made it clear that extension of this deadline was quite likely.

Those who thought it was beginning to look like a ‘Clash of the Titans’ are wrong. The BCJ will fall in line with the dictates of the OPM and it will be ‘business as usual’ for cable operators, at least for some time yet.

Free-to-air TV versus Cable TV

In the minds of some, the Government of Jamaica is yet again giving cable operators a ‘blie’/an unfair advantage over free-to-air TV/local TV stations. Note that cable operators pay a percentage of their revenues to the BCJ. The more cable operators make, the more they can pay over to the BCJ. Some say that those who pay the piper call the tune. The Government’s most recent intervention on behalf of the cable operators may help to foster this kind of thinking, especially since local TV stations are not required to remit any portion of their revenues to the Broadcasting Commission of Jamaica.

In his online comment to my article, ‘Pirates of the Caribbean: Cable TV Operators & Copyright Infringement’, Anthony Thompson wrote, “While the diet of pirated content was fed to the Jamaican consumer, the BCJ was being heavy handed on local content providers instead of encouraging the local industry which by now would have grown greatly….Just as Jamaica produces a high volume of music so we could be exporting local content too like India and Africa.”

To be fair, cable operators are now moving swiftly to create local content but still, Thompson’s point is worth noting. If cable operators are allowed to air channels for which they pay nothing, it becomes extremely difficult for free-to-air TV stations to compete when they have to pay rights fees for their programmes. Isn’t it time for a level playing field and for all to pay copyright holders?

Level the Playing Field

The need for a level playing field is highlighted within the context of reports that the BCJ is recommending changes to the Broadcasting and Radio Re-diffusion Act so as to increase fines for copyright infringement. How then can the Government of Jamaica continue to allow cable operators to air overseas channels without paying rights holders but at the same time want to charge local TV and radio stations for copyright infringement?

May 20, 2015