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Licence leash awaits cable operators
- New minister lines up debut with introduction of set-top boxes

New Delhi, Feb. 18: The Union information and broadcasting ministry is working on a licensing system for cable television operators. The ministry is in favour of introducing licensing of cable operators simultaneously with the conditional access system — set-top boxes — that will allow viewers to pick and choose the pay channels they want to watch.

The ministry has not made any official announcement on this. But new information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad is understood to have voiced his resentment at the “haphazard and unregulated growth” of the cable television network.

In the short run, the proposal to license cable television operators is likely to send the implementation of the conditional access system for a toss. The minister has said he is committed to implement the conditional access system.

But the schedule of implementation — July 14 has been set as the deadline to introduce the access system in the four metros — may have to be altered because licensing of cable operators will necessitate another amendment to the Cable Television Networks Act.

The ministry’s motivation to license cable operators is born out of reports brought to its notice that operators go beyond their brief and tap into the network to open new revenue streams, such as local advertising and, in some cases, broadcasting of localised events and even news.

Cable television networks now operate through a chain that has four main players — broadcasters (such as STAR, Zee, Sony), multi-system operators (MSOs such as Siticable, RPG Netcom, Incable), the local cable operator and the viewer. As broadcasters see it, the brief and business of the MSOs and operators is only to relay cable television signals.

However, many operators and MSOs transmit their own signals — for example, by running their own movie channel, cutting into the content of other channels by superimposing advertisements and, in some cases, by even offering a bulletin of local news and live telecast of localised events.

Broadcasters argue that the way operators are functioning, there is a serious threat of erosion of revenue because, they allege, they have to cope not only with the under-declaration of the number of cable subscribers but also compete with the operators’ own signals for viewership.

Sources in the ministry say the conditional access system as envisaged currently will seek to discipline broadcasters and viewers’ habits but without a regulatory framework for the network, it will not be implementable. Licensing operators will be one way of streamlining the business.

The Cable Television Networks Act was amended last year to allow for the conditional access system. Even at the time, it was said that when the Convergence Bill — on which a standing committee of Parliament has made more than 70 proposals — is enacted, the Cable Act will be overriden.

Prasad is now also working to set up a Broadcasting Council of India — a (content ) regulatory authority for broadcasters — that will also be subsumed by the Convergence Bill. The minister will meet telecom minister Arun Shourie to discuss these matters. The information and broadcasting ministry’s steps to introduce licensing for cable operators and the Broadcasting Council will be determined by the outcome of the inter-ministerial discussions.

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