Sucheta Dalal :The Cable Bill: So how consumer-friendly is it?
Sucheta Dalal

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The Cable Bill: So how consumer-friendly is it?  

September 30, 2002

On September 17, television viewers linked to the Hinduja owned IN-Mumbai, found that CNBC India was suddenly replaced by Bloomberg Television. A call to the local cable operator provided no clues. A couple of days later CNBC India sent out a press release with the explanation.

Apparently, CNBC India had carried a routine wire report from United News of India, saying, "The Central Bureau of Investigation has told a Delhi court that there is enough evidence to frame charges against the Hinduja brothers, Srichand, Gopichand and Prakashchand, in the Bofors case."

The report also said that the CBI had asked the court to frame charges against the Hinduja brothers and Bofors agent Ottavio Quattrochhi for bribery, cheating and conspiracy.

On reading the CNBC press release, I had to jog my memory to remember the report -- probably because Bofors is old hat and Hinduja brothers and Quattrochhi have been making headlines over the Bofors bribes for over 17 years.

Most of us, including us hacks who are not directly covering the case, are so desensitized to the issue that unless the brothers are arrested or Quattrochhi is brought back to India in handcuffs, we are unlikely to sit up and take notice. That is probably why the UNI story did not even make it to many morning dailies.

The Hindujas invariably react strongly to all reports about themselves. But in this case CNBC India, for some unexplained reason, seems to have provoked them to a raging fury.

In a swift, crude and ham-handed reaction, the Hindujas simply yanked CNBC India off their cable network (IN-Mumbai) and replaced it with Bloomberg Television.

Or maybe, the Hindujas are not even that furious, they simply think that CNBC India is a weak enough target that can be used to send a message to other broadcasters that it is they who ultimately control access to the consumer.

The 'consumer' being we, the hapless people, who pay the Hindujas a monthly fee to have a choice of channels.

Why is CNBC India an easy but important target? Because, it has a very focused and narrow viewership which is mainly concentrated in Mumbai and a few other business centers in the country.

It is viewed by top bankers, businessmen and most of all investors, all of whose opinion is important to the Hindujas.

Also, unlike entertainment or news channel viewers, CNBC India's viewers are unlikely to react hysterically or bombard political heavyweights to reinstate the channel. Business news after all is not like the travails of a warring Saas-bahu of an Ekta Kapoor soap, which is followed with fanatical interest everyday.

By blanking CNBC India from large parts of Mumbai, the Hindujas have managed to inflict maximum damage on the channel and sent a strong signal to other television networks that they had better be careful in reporting about the Hindujas.

CNBC India's press release says: While the Hinduja Group has not sent any kind of written communication to CNBC India, two of their officials clearly confirmed that the action was taken because 'the Hinduja Group was extremely unhappy with the CNBC report.' These officials are identified as: Ashok Mansukhani and Abin Das.

CNBC India calls the Hinduja action brazen, unjust, arbitrary and an assault on the freedom of the media. Maybe; but it is more an assault on the paying consumer.

The Hindujas have demonstrated that they don't give a damn about us consumers because there is nothing we can do - at least for now. Otherwise, they would have thought twice before inflicting Bloomberg Television on their viewers.

Bloomberg does not cater to the Indian audience. It does display Indian stock indices, and during trading hours has a ticker tape of Indian stocks running across the bottom, but then so do most of the news channels.

For that matter, most CNBC India viewers probably have constant access to the Internet and could get their stock quotations straight off the stock exchange websites. But that is not what people watch CNBC India for. They are looking for news updates, discussions and clarifications.

Do the Hindujas care? That the channel continues to be blanked out nearly 10 days after the allegedly offending story provides the answer.

The issue is not CNBC India. The issue is the manner in which cable operators, frequently hold the paying consumers to ransom.

They exploit to the hilt the fact that television is the cheapest form of entertainment and information for most Indians and the structure of broadcast is such that it provides them very few rights or options.

Not long ago, cable operators deprived viewers in Mumbai and other parts of the country of an entire week of World Cup football matches because they had a dispute with Ten-Sports, which had bagged the broadcast rights. Viewers themselves had no choice, not even if they were willing to pay twice as much to watch the matches.

Ironically enough, just around that time the charismatic Sushma Swaraj (Minister for Information and Broadcasting) was working overtime to push through Parliament, the Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Amendment Bill, 2002, which was to hurtle Indian cable TV into the conditional access system era.

Swaraj, the broadcasters and the cable-wallahs, all assured us that the Bill would be good for the consumer. All we would have to do is pay substantially more for access to the same channels that we already view.

We would spend anywhere between Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 for a set-top box and the cable operators would set up encrypting/decrypting systems in their head-ends to give us access only to those channels that we paid for.

It was estimated that monthly cable bills too would be substantially higher - but nobody would say how much.

A few weeks ago, I remember being on a CNBC India show and asking Ashok Mansukhani of Hinduja's IN-Mumbai, how would the CAS benefit me as a consumer. After all, my choice as the person who pays is very limited.

I can only choose from a menu that cable operators like IN-Mumbai would offer. And if the Hindujas want to vent their anger at CNBC India, I will be forced to watch Bloomberg Television because I have no choice. And God forbid if the Hindujas are furious with the World Cup football organizers, for I would simply have to miss the entire event.

Fortunately, they won't dare blank out cricket matches where India is playing, no matter how angry they are, because that would lead to a riot with serious financial and physical consequences to themselves.

Does Sushma Swaraj care what we, the paying consumers feel? Hardly. She knows that as long as consumers are made to believe that 'conditional access' would benefit them, they will not protest. And once the Bill gets past Parliament, it doesn't matter if they feel furious or cheated. In fact, so eager are the cable operators to have the Bill passed that they have the temerity to hold a public dharna in Delhi to pressure Parliament to pass the Bill. They had even threatened a cable blackout, in the hope that public pressure would work in their favour.

Fortunately for us, there have been disagreements over the efficacy of the condition access system among the broadcasters themselves. And that is why, our politicians rejected the Bill in the Rajya Sabha and even staged a walkout over the government's attempts to ram the Bill through Parliament.

Maybe it is time we woke up and took a long hard look at the Bill and the manner in which cable operators are choosing what we view and how much we pay, or, using us to pressure politicians through the simple trick of a cable blackout which immediately whips up public outrage.

-- Sucheta Dalal