Alokananda Chakraborty

Will CAS really provide freedom of choice to the viewer?

As broadcasters, cable operators and MSOs struggle to resolve their differences towards a smooth implementation of CAS on July 15, the question is, will the consumer be able to exercise her choice in the post-CAS scenario?

July 15, the day when conditional access system or CAS will finally see the light of the day, is not far away. But confusion regarding its implementation abounds even to this day, and disparate interest groups voicing their opinion seem to be increasing dissonance rather than reducing it. In this scenario, the issue - whether conditional access system (CAS) will permit consumers in the four metros (Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, where the initial roll-out will happen) to exercise their will, considering the sharp polarisation of interest groups on the subject - deserves closer scrutiny.

Though the IBF or the Indian Broadcasting Federation maintains that the body stands united in trouncing differences on the matter within the group, industry sources would like to point otherwise. "There were apprehensions expressed by STAR (about CAS) at the task force (formed by the I&B Ministry) meeting held on May 7," stated a source. "MSOs had some reservations about the super bouquet of pay channels created by some networks," added the source.

The allusion here is to the recent proposal mooted by STAR, Sony, Modi Entertainment Network (that distributes FTV, DD Sports, Hallmark and Ten Sports), ESPN-STAR Sports and SUN to have several tiers in a post-CAS regime.

It stipulated a pricing mechanism based on genres with the basic tier comprising general entertainment channels STAR Plus and SET, the basic-plus tier comprising special interest channels STAR World, CHannel [V], STAR News, Discovery, National Geographic Channel, Animal Planet and Adventure One, the premium tier comprising movie channels, action-adventure channel AXN and FTV, sports, comprising ESPN, STAR Sports, DD Sports and Ten Sports, and language, comprising Vijay TV and KTV.

According to media reports, the Information & Broadcasting Ministry is against the bundling of pay channels since it would defeat the whole purpose of conditional access. "The idea of CAS is to provide transparency where the consumer finally decides what he or she wants and pays accordingly. For this, it is mandatory that each channel should have a price to it. Bundling would mean that you are incentivising the buying process, once again saddling consumers with channels that may not be of their choice. That would mean, reverting to the scenario that exists pre-CAS."

Again, the issue of pricing of set-top boxes or STB has resulted in an uproar among consumer groups with the sum to be coughed up amounting to Rs 7,000-Rs 8,000, as against Rs 2,500-Rs 3,000 as estimated earlier! "This is the price of the digital set-top boxes promoted by the MSOs, which is a huge investment," asserts a media observer. "Would an average consumer be able to shell out such money? CAS would then lead to haves and have-nots with the availability of cable becoming a luxury."

Jawahar Goel, director, Siticable (cable arm of the ZEE Network), who is also a representative on the I&B's Ministry task force on CAS has this point to make. "The digital set-top box costs around Rs 3,500 when you take into account import duty of 50.8 per cent. My contention to the Government is that if the import duty can be reduced or dropped, and revenue be recovered by way of service, entertainment or income tax, then the price of the STB will come to down to Rs 2,500. This may not be such a bad deal given that it is an investment made for the next 10 to 15 years, and because it offers a parental lock, which is important considering that a lot of the entertainment on television today may not be appropriate for the consumption of the younger members of the family, but which is freely available."

His parting words, "There is much push and pull in the market resulting in the quotation of such exorbitant prices. The only notification by the Government so far is the announcement of the basic tier comprising a minimum of 30 FTA (free-to-air) channels amounting to Rs 72 per subscriber plus taxes. Rakesh Mohan, chairman of the task force has indicated that the Government will not intervene in matters of pricing of the pay channels since that is a call the broadcasters need to take." © 2003 agencyfaqs!

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