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PMO pokes its nose into box

New Delhi, June 19: The Prime Minister’s Office today stepped into the imbroglio over the conditional access (CAS) regime for cable television with Brajesh Mishra summoning information and broadcasting secretary Pawan Chopra for a briefing.

Amid the possibility of a divide in the cable broadcasting fraternity — with STAR TV and most foreign-run channels on one side and Zee and swadeshi channels on the other — I&B minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, Chopra and senior ministry officials began a series of meetings among themselves and with broadcasters late in the evening.

So far, the PMO’s point man on CAS has been Sudheendra Kulkarni, who also doubles as media adviser in the I&B ministry.

Yesterday, Chopra had walked out of a meeting with multi-system operators (MSOs) and broadcasters after repeated efforts to evolve a compromise on shaping the CAS regime failed.

At the core of the dispute is the government’s promise to deliver all pay channels at Rs 200 a month, inclusive of rates of set-top boxes. But rates quoted by STAR for pay channels from four broadcasters threaten to peg tariffs much higher. Cable operators estimate STAR’s rates will take the subscription fee to over Rs 500 a month.

Prasad said there were several coercive measures the government could consider to force the broadcasters to quote “viewer-friendly” rates. The ministry was thinking of imposing a restriction on airing of advertisements on pay channels. “There are several measures. We are looking at all of them,” he added.

“We are trying to be a facilitator,” he said of the government’s role. “You (broadcasters) cannot treat the consumers with contempt.”

Prasad said he was likely to meet the Prime Minister and brief him, “keeping in mind his directive to make CAS consumer friendly”.

A section of broadcasters led by Zee is likely to quote new rates for pay channels under CAS tomorrow. Zee/Siticable representative Jawahar Goel said the company was not associating itself with the rate list circulated by STAR. Goel also insinuated that STAR had quoted high prices to discourage viewers from buying set-top boxes.

Zee/Siticable itself is tying up loose ends to put in place a new delivery system for cable channels called “Headend In The Sky” (HITS). Goel had said yesterday that STAR’s “tiering” system for channels was not suited for CAS but for the direct-to-home (DTH) regime.

STAR has major investment plans in DTH, which like CAS is a delivery system for cable channels. Even Siticable’s HITS platform is not undisputed.

Cable operators urged the I&B ministry to ensure that their business was not adversely affected by Siticable’s plans. They also asked the government to take steps against broadcasters. “It is now evident that STAR TV, Sony TV and ESPN-STAR Sports channel broadcasters want to derail the implementation of CAS,” the National Cable and Telecommunication Association said in a letter to Chopra.

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