Sucheta Dalal :Does Conditional Access mean better conditions? (26 May 2003)
Sucheta Dalal

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You are here: Home » Column Topics » Indian Express - Cheques & Balances » Does Conditional Access mean better conditions? (26 May 2003)
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Does Conditional Access mean better conditions? (26 May 2003)  

The consumer’s right to choose which channels they want to view, was the raison d’etre for the new law introducing the Conditional Access System (CAS) in India.

But, with less than two months to the July 14 launch of the CAS, broadcasters are in a panic. They are afraid that a majority of consumers will indeed make a choice. And, they may choose to watch the free-to-air channels available for the base price of Rs 72 per month, and give a go by to the set-top box. By doing so, they would save themselves the cost of a small television (which is how much the set-top box would cost); they would also avoid an expensive alternative that will see them paying more money to get fewer channels from the current spread.

Even, if the cost of the box was not a consideration, consumers are angry that buying it would still not give them the option of choosing the last-mile service provider. Consumers are tired of being harassed by arrogant cable operators, their frequent tinkering with channels and repeated hike in subscription rates.

The CAS bill, while increasing costs, gives the consumer neither a choice of cable operators nor a redressal mechanism against them. What makes the regulations more amazing is that these were formulated after deliberations by a task force comprising consumer groups, broadcasters, cable service providers and multi system operators.

Unsurprisingly, the biggest advocates of CAS are cable service providers. Apart from lobbying for CAS, they are also fighting off broadcasters who want the system deferred and are working to garner consumer support. It would seem that a part of their strategy is to convert the situation into a swadeshi-videshi issue by alleging that ‘foreign’ broadcasters such as Star, Sony, ESPN-Star Sports are using their immense media clout borne out of cross-ownership between entertainment channels and news channels to lobby their case with the government. Cable service providers are worried that broadcasters are spreading ‘their tentacles into the cable TV distribution business’ by buying distribution networks. They have some valid points. Without CAS, broadcasters would repeatedly hike subscriber fees and also continue to earn advertising revenue. If cable operators are believed, broadcasters have hiked subscriber fees by 500 per cent in last three years.

Moreover, the bundling of channels offered on all-or-none basis, they say, is just an excuse to charge higher rates and push unpopular channels. Cable service providers claim that they incur an operating cost of around Rs 400 per month per viewer, including the cost per bouquet, taxes and expenses.

But, check with the consumer and you’d find little sympathy either for cable operators or cable service providers. For instance, the last few weeks saw many parts of Mumbai suffer frequent blacking out of their cable service because of a fight between In Cable, the service provider and various broadcasters. The broadcasters claimed through newspaper advertisements that the cable service provider was not passing on fees collected from subscribers to them.

The cable companies predictably denied this. But it was the consumers who suffered. They paid full charges for the service and had nobody to complain to. Fortunately, much of that may change by July 14. The fear that the television subscribers will dig in their heels and refuse to pay is getting their voice heard in the highest circles in the country— namely the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). But make no mistake; the PMO hasn’t improved its awareness about consumer issues.

Industry estimates reportedly suggest that only 5 per cent of 6.4 million cable viewing homes in the four metros will purchase set-top boxes. Media buying agencies, or the guys who keep the channels alive by distributing the big bucks are convinced that consumer will not be rushing to spend Rs 3,000-7,000 for set-top boxes, or pay to view additional channels. So, they re pulling out their campaigns from pay channels, until the CAS system is implemented and real viewership numbers are available.

That has obviously panicked broadcasters. If there is set-top box in each home, there will be little scope for broadcasters to fudge Television Ration Points (TRPs)—the current controversial and imperfect measure of television viewership. Which means that some of the channels churning out endlessly banal Saas-bahu soaps may be starved of viewership and advertising and could even fold up. It is no wonder then that many channels are rushing to go free-to-air. Over 80 per cent of their revenues come from advertising, which they cannot afford to lose. According to media reports, Star News has been forced to turn free to remain in competition with NDTV News, Sahara Samay, Aaj Tak and Headlines Today. Rumours are doing rounds that Fashion TV, DD Sports, Zee News and Zee’s Alpha channels may turn free-to-air too.

Funnily enough, it wouldn’t be correct to write off the CAS either. If it were to look after consumers’ interest by giving them a real choice, put in place a powerful regulator to resolve issues between broadcasters and cable service providers and ensure that consumers are not harassed or overcharged, then CAS would indeed help to regulate the industry. On the other hand, chaotic implementation would kill channels, reduce viewership and be a huge setback for the television industry. But the moot question before the consumer is, what should they do as July 14 approaches?

Frankly, anyone who is not a television junkie would be well advised to stay put and watch developments without investing in expensive set-top boxes. If the ‘powerful’ broadcasters lobby does not get the introduction of CAS postponed, then consumer groups may have it stayed by filing public interest litigation. A third possibility is that the consumer will eventually get all the channels he needs on a free-to-air basis at a much lower fee and no set-top boxes. Any way one looks at the situation, it seems to make sense to wait and watch rather than rush off to spend good money.

-- Sucheta Dalal