The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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30 channels for less than 100
- Centre issues guidelines for conditional access system

New Delhi, May 8: Viewers in Calcutta, Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi should be able to watch at least 30 channels for less than Rs 100 a month after a new regime governing the television industry begins from July 14.

A notification issued by the Centre today has fixed the minimum number of channels to be shown by cable television operators and the maximum amount that they can charge the viewer.

The notification from the ministry of information and broadcasting has stipulated that a “basic tier” of free-to-air channels should cover the genres of entertainment, news, sports, children’s programmes and music. They must be in English, Hindi and in the regional languages.

The notification said cable operators cannot charge more than Rs 72 (plus taxes) from a viewer for the “basic tier” of at least 30 channels. If there are more than 30 free-to-air channels available in a region, cable operators will have to show them at no extra cost to the viewer.

In the conditional access system (CAS), viewers not accessing pay channels do not need to buy set-top boxes, prices for which can range from about Rs 2,000 or less for an analog system to about Rs 7,000 for a digital.

However, two months before the conditional access system is to debut, the cable television scenario is fuzzy with none of the major players — broadcasters, operators and viewers — able to form a clear idea on who is to fund the set-top boxes. Indeed, there are as many ideas on the market being shaped as there are players in it.

Today’s notification makes transmission of three Doordarshan channels (DD National, DD Bharti and DD regional language service) compulsory.

Though the government notification attempts to give a structure to the CAS regime, the pressures and pulls of the market threaten to leave the viewer guessing as to what he/she is entitled to. The stated objective of CAS is designed to allow viewers flexibility and freedom. For instance, viewers should be able to choose a pay channel, for example ESPN, during a major cricket telecast and choose to disconnect after the event is over.

But powerful lobbies in the industry — such as the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) — have been overtly or covertly casting doubts on the practicability of going ahead with CAS. Yesterday, a meeting of broadcasters debated whether there should be a set of guidelines for cable operators.

Viewers also run the risk of being told by cable operators that they must buy set-top boxes to see any cable channel. The aware viewer should be able to see through such fraud.

Broadcasters are also toying with several options under the CAS regime like dual-feeds and variable pricing. Dual feed is jargon for an additional broadcast of the same channel. This could mean a scenario in which viewers in Southern Avenue will have to pay for, say, Star Plus, which is a pay channel, but viewers in Sonarpur may get to see it for free.

The broadcasters’ interest lies in increasing viewership to rake in advertisement revenue. Also, a scenario in which a pay channel broadcaster can charge say Rs 20 in one locality of a city and Rs 10 or none at all in another is entirely plausible. The government is hoping that the CAS regime will force broadcasters to make many pay channels free-to-air.

Sources in the information and broadcasting ministry say “we will take a hands-off approach as long as the ‘basic tier’ stipulation is complied with. The rest will be left for market forces to determine.”

The government is also understood to be considering a move to make broadcasters declare the price at which each pay channel will be available. Viewers complain that cable operators can charge arbitrarily because the cost of channels is not made widely known. But the I&B sources did not commit themselves on this. “A lot will depend on how the market shapes up. We should be prepared for a period of trial and error,” they said.

The other major source of worry is the availability of set-top boxes. The industry is at best hazarding guesses on what the demand will be.

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