July 2018


India's First Cable Operator & Satellite Channel Broadcaster

Ever wondered how it all began - when & where was India's first cable TV service started? What was the name of India's first cable TV subscriber?

Who were the pioneers who initiated this extraordinary revolution?

When did the first Indian private Satellite TV broadcasting start - who was person behind this channel?

SCAT has decided to do a series on the early pioneers of this Industry; and to begin with, we interviewed the widely acknowledged pioneer of cable and satellite in India - Siddhartha Srivastava in Mumbai. He has the double distinction as the first person to start a commercial Cable TV service in India in 1981 and also to start India's first satellite TV channel in 1991.

SCaT: Siddhartha, do tell me how & when did you start India's first cable TV system, in Mumbai. Also, how did you get this idea?

SS: Well, it was 1981, I was 23 years old & had just graduated with BE (Hons) in Electronics. I was ready to leave, in a couple of months to USA for Management and strategic studies at the Georgetown University in Washington D.C. I decided to stop over for a few weeks in Mumbai & stay with my sister in Colaba.

This was the era of VCR'S which used to cost ₹ 1.5 lacs each & was prestigious to own one! Also, it was the time of the Asiad games etc. and colour TV's were rapidly replacing the B&W TV sets - people were desperate to get access to any form of colour TV content.

At that time, Doordarshan used to broadcast a single channel with virtually no quality entertainment. The highlight was a 45 minutes films' songs program every week called Geet Mala.

I sensed a huge opportunity - if I could transmit entertainment via cable directly to the TV sets, I was sure there would be a lot of subscribers.

The problem was there was no hardware available to do this, not even coax cable - there used to be only the flat TV Antenna cable & no RF Splitters or Amplifiers.

So I decided to make them. I remember experimenting ... got a dozen small PCBs, ferrite cores, resistors & capacitors; sat down with a soldering iron and actually made the first splitters and a couple of RF amplifiers. I then went to Thane and got 300 meters coaxial cable made. I was ready to roll.

ATN’s Siddhartha Srivastava At
Satellite Uplinking Centre In Russia

I contacted the building secretary and explained the cable TV concept to him it took him a few days to understand what I was trying to do - finally he issued a letter allowing me to put the system I place a allocated a small 50 sq. ft room to set up what was to become India's first cable tv control room. The building was Sagar Sangeet and the year was 1981 when I installed and started the first cable tv service.

'Sagar Sangeet' at Colaba Got The 1st Cable TV Network in 1981

SCaT: That's great, how did you make it a commercial success?

SS: I remember it was 5th April - a Sunday.

I started canvassing for subscribers at 11am - went up to the 32nd Floor with a view of walking down floor by floor.

I hoped to get a good response, but what happened is something I will never forget. (By evening almost the whole building had subscribed to my service.)

With a certain amount of trepidation, I rang the bell of my first potential customer - Mrs. Bahl. She along with her husband patiently listened to me and smiled encouragingly when I told them that they were the first people I had contacted with this scheme called "Cable TV" - What will it cost? They asked me - I told them there will be a one-time installation charge of ₹ 2500 & a monthly fee of ₹ 250, for two channels - one Doordarshan (which they could watch without and external antenna) and one video channel which will beam 5 hrs of entertainment per day except Sundays when we will beam for 7 hours! She seemed quite impressed and signed the form and gave me the money on the spot - with one condition - I was to play her favourite movie on the first day - which of course I did - a promise I kept as she was India's first Cable TV subscriber!

Nutan Was India's 1st Cable Tv Subscriber & ANARI the first Indian Movie on CATV

India's first cable TV subscriber was Nutan and the film she choose & I played on 12th April 1981 - at 5pm, starting the first cable TV service was ANARI - starring Nutan and Raj Kapoor. I remember sitting with Nutan when the film started playing - it was an emotional moment - she was very happy and excited (I remember her calling up several people including Raj Kapoor to tell them about this exciting new technology) and wished me all the best for my new venture.

Little did I know how fast and how big Cable TV was to become - I recall looking at the Mumbai skyline that evening on that memorable day from her penthouse and wondered if I would ever be able to start the cable TV in all the buildings I could see! As luck would have it, in just a few months the demand was so great that almost all the buildings of South Mumbai had my Cable TV. I was operating out of more than 50 control rooms and employing more than 300 people!

And that my friends, was how Cable TV made a beginning in India.

SCaT: How did you transition from set up India's first cable TV network, to launching the first satellite TV channel?

SS: Yes. The transition from Cable TV to satellite TV was quite interesting as well.

S. Srivastava With Ted Turner Of CNN

In 1989 on a visit to Cannes for MIPCOM, I was invited to a CNN reception of CNN. My company ran the CNN bureau in India, as it was early days for them. I was introduced to Ted Turner the founder of CNN by some senior CNN executives in a typical American style as "He's our man in India - he is also the guy who runs Cable TV in India."

The first question Turner asked me after some small talk was "Tell me how many subscribers do you have in India?" I think it was then, while talking to him that the first thought of starting a satellite channel hit me; because Turner explained to me how difficult it was for him to fight the broadcasting networks cartel of ABC, NBC, CBS.

I realised that the way to get millions of subscribers was satellite TV and not organic growth of small cable TV systems, like what was taking place in India.

I remember walking on the Croisette in Cannes after the party and sitting down by the sea to think about how I could start a satellite channel in India. Although I had thought of satellite TV before... If my memory serves me right, that was the first time I seriously began planning to start satellite television.

SCaT: So how did you actually start the channel?

SS: The Gulf war started in 1990 - and CNN became a house hold name. I reported extensively from India for CNN & tried to put the Indian perspective and position on the world stage.

My crew & I interviewed Rajiv Gandhi & PM Chandrashekar multiple times during the Gulf war. It dawned that there should be an Indian satellite channel- the only people having a spare transponder were the Russians - and that's where I headed after some recommendations from the Indian side.

ATN - India's First Satellite Channel Commenced on 15 Aug 1991

I got some NRI friends from London to invest in the transponder on the Russian satellite, and so on 15th Aug 1991 India's first TV channel started beaming signals over India. The channel was called ATN.

It was very popular in those days and almost every house across India watched ATN, simply because it was the only channel available - (Laughs)

Rajiv Gandhi Interviewed During Gulf War

SCaT: That is very modest of you, Siddhartha. Even though you were the first to start the satellite channel, how come others like Zee who started broadcasting later, were able to get far ahead of you?

SS: It's a very good question and I am glad you asked me.

If you remember in 1991 there was little choice of transponders - first of all they were all analog i.e. In 36 MHz you could broadcast just one channel - so there was Asiasat - a refurbished satellite where just one transponder was being offered to me on a platter - as I was already operational.

I was very excited and thrilled that in Russia they offered me a whole satellite - 12 transponders!

I would have become unbeatable if that satellite was launched - but the Russian economy virtually collapsed at that time and the satellite which was offered to me unfortunately got delayed for 4 years.

Many people don't know this but I had signed up with Murdoch for the Asiasat transponder first - before ZEE.

However due to the Russian option which was more appealing at that time, I actually gave it up and it was on that transponder that Subash Chandra was able to get on Asiasat.

He of course had great business acumen and made it a huge success it is today.

I even started Sun TV for Kalanidhi Maran at that time - see where he is today.

With the 4 years lead & multinationals like Sony etc. coming in players like Zee etc. were able to consolidate their positions. By 1996 it was too late for small players. The satellite revolution was already underway, large bouquets of channels had mushroomed overnight & it was difficult for an individual player to compete.

In hindsight it was suicidal for me to give up the Asiasat transponder and bet on the Russian satellite, but I guess at that time it made a lot of sense.

It is all a combination of Karma and destiny!

SCaT: Your journey in the media world will certainly be of great interest to our readers; have you ever been given any recognition or awards for your pioneering achievements?

SS: Frankly I am a selfeffacing type of a person, so I don't really bother about things like that; although I did receive an award by PM Narasima Rao in the Indian Parliament with a citation "For his pioneering work in promoting electronic media in India."

SCaT: This is all very interesting. Tell me what keeps you busy nowadays? Which projects are you currently working on?

SS: Well I pioneered the concept of IPTV in India in 2001 & launched the first commercial service in 2005.

S. Srivastava Receives An Award From PM Narasima Rao For Promoting Electronic Media

I am still betting on the OTT streaming technology and am also busy creating a cloud based eco system for distributed data computing, AI, analytics and content management using some cutting edge technologies.

However, I am wiser by experience, and therefore, this time around I intend to take a lead and let others play the catch-up game!