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An unsolicited story that doesn''t endnews
Uday Chatterjee
01 June 2003

New Delhi:
The scope and objective of this article is to place before the reader the recent ''goings-on'' on the conditional access system (CAS) front. After reading this piece, if the reader is more confused than before, well, then the noble purpose of fair and accurate reporting would stand vindicated.

The dramatis personae in this real-life soap opera consist of TV broadcasters like Star and Zee, multi-service operators (MSO) like InCablenet and Hathway who beam the signals to your homes and the ubiquitous cable operator. The cast is supported by the advertiser, the government and the politician.

Presently, a TV viewer with a cable connection gets to see a boutique of about 70 free and paid-for channels by paying Rs 125 to 250 per month. From 14 July 2003, the CAS regime will be introduced in the four metro cities of Mumbai, New Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata. Here, the viewer will get to see about 30 channels free by paying Rs 72 per month. For the paid channels like Star Sports and ESPN the viewer will have to pay additional amounts, which could range from Rs 50 to Rs 85 per channel.

Under the existing system out of the 70 channels, about 10 are paid-for channels. Which means if each of these channels charge Rs 50 per month, the viewer has to pay a minimum of Rs 500 per month. But he gets away by paying just Rs 125-250 per month. A sweet deal, no doubt, but how does the industry sustain itself and why was it business-as-usual for the industry?

Well, the cable operator lies about the number of subscribers in his bouquet. If he has 100 customers, he says he has only 15 to 20 customers and pays only for them — whopping losses for the TV channels and MSOs (losses to the government in terms of entertainment and service tax), and whopping profits for the cable operators.

The plot thickens
Ethics and evasion apart, concerns about democracy and the right of choice are raised. Under the present system, the viewer has no choice but to see only what the cable operator offers him. Under CAS, we are told that the viewer has the choice to pay for only what he wants to see and not pay for what he does not want to see. Really?

Till date, none of the TV broadcasters have declared the channels that will be paid for and which will be free under CAS. Moreover, even under the new dispensation, the viewer will have no choice but to stick to his cable operator who will have no choice but to stick to his MSO who does not know what he will be beaming for free and for paid after the landmark day of 14 July. Therefore, the viewer will have the democratic choice of seeing only what his MSO and the cable operator beam to him.

While the Rs 72 for the 30-plus free-channel scheme sounds attractive, there is another price tag. The viewer has to install a device called a set-top box (STB). It is only after installing the STB that he can watch the paid-for channels. The STBs are of two types — digital and analogue — and they are available at a price that the viewer does not know.

It has been widely circulated in the media that a digital STB can cost anything between Rs 4,000 and Rs 7,000. What is the difference between a Rs 7,000 STB and a Rs 4,000 STB is unclear. Nevertheless, the price range is quite high for the average viewer to go for an immediate purchase decision.

To make things easier, the viewer can purchase an analogue STB, which could cost Rs 2,000 or less. That was a measure meant to mitigate the hardship of the middle- and lower-middle-class viewer. Only, almost all the widely subscribed MSOs are not offering analogue STBs. The viewer''s democratic choice is, therefore, restricted to the Rs 4,000-to-Rs 7,000 digital STB.

The political angle
Last Friday (30 June), keeping in view the public mood towards CAS, the government slashed the import duty on the STBs. The STBs will now cost about 45 per cent less. This largesse is only temporary, as the duty cut is valid only up to the 31 July, after which the old rates are back.

The players in the industry, particularly the TV broadcasters and the advertisers, very well know that hardly 10 per cent of the viewers will switch to CAS by 31 July. And these 10 per cent are the guys who would switch to CAS irrespective of the cost, while others would wait and watch. So who really benefits?

One also needs to spare a thought for the TV broadcasters and the advertisers. They are completely in the dark about the viewer ship-pattern that will emerge in the metropolises and in other towns after CAS. Thus, the broadcasters are grappling with what advertisement rates they will offer under free and under paid for and in which city. The advertiser is also struggling to figure out which advertisement to insert in which channel. The kind of numbers-crunching presently going on in their offices will make a rocket scientist proud.

Lastly, the politicians are also dead against CAS as they feel that the public, deprived of entertainment, will anger their mood against them, particularly in sensitive election times. Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit has as good as said that she would allow CAS to be implemented over her dead body. Delhi faces elections in a few months and she is demanding for CAS to be postponed.

The whole CAS episode can be likened to a typical soap opera where initially about 52 episodes are planned. By the time you come to the 40th episode, you would notice that there are sudden twists and turns in the tale and the serial gets stretched to 200-plus episodes. The recent twists and turns in the CAS story indicate that we are in the 40th episode and the story may well end in 2005 — after the general elections.

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An unsolicited story that doesn''t end