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Siticable fits PM bill, minus box & tax

New Delhi, June 21: A clutch of multi-system operators led by Siticable today came out with rates for pay and free-to-air channels in a band from Rs 200 to Rs 222 per subscription, but the net cost to the cable television viewer is still a guessing game when the conditional access regime rolls out.

The announcement today by the Siticable-led cabal comes in the wake of the Prime Minister’s directive to the information and broadcasting minister that he must ensure viewers do not have to fork out more than what they do currently.

The announcement is also an effort by multi-system and cable operators to force broadcasters — chiefly STAR — to bring down the tariff on their channels or face a blackout from July 14 when set-top boxes become mandatory to view pay channels.

Jawahar Goel, head of Siticable, a Zee Networks outfit, said the multi-system operator would distribute all pay channels at a flat rate of Rs 128.

In Siticable’s scheme of things, the subscription for pay and free-to-air channels will total Rs 200 per month, including the Rs 72 prescribed by the government for free-to-air channels. The amount does not include taxes and the price of set-top boxes.

Goel claimed that broadcasters like Sony and ESPN have also “shown their inclination to participate” (but not the STAR network). “The discussion with these channels has made considerable headway and it will take some more time to enter into a formal agreement,” he said. Siticable’s conditional access system will be on the Headend in the Sky (HITS) platform.

Vikky Choudhary, who claimed to speak for independent cable operators, Incable/Hathway and Spectranet, said their rate would be capped at Rs 222 per subscription per month. This would include Rs 75 as distribution charges from the broadcasters, Rs 75 for pay channels and Rs 72 for free-to-air channels. The distribution and pay channel fees would be dependent on the number of pay channels a subscriber chooses to see. Choudhary’s rate of Rs 222 per subscription also does not include taxes and the cost of the set-top box.

While the announcement of these rates puts pressure on broadcasters to peg pay channel prices at what operators think are a manageable level, there are several questions on which answers are still elusive. Chief among these — as the objective of the conditional access regime is to give freedom of choice to the viewer — is that the individual prices of channels are still not available.

Siticable sources said all 14 channels in the Zee-Turner network would be available for Rs 1.80 per day or Rs 54 a month — not very different from the Rs 54-55 quoted by STAR. Asked about the scenario where a viewer does not want all 14 channels but just two or three, the sources said Siticable had written to the ministry of information and broadcasting seeking a waiver of the rule that makes it mandatory to announce prices of individual pay channels.

Choudhary said cable operators and multi-system operators he was in touch with had fixed the rate of pay channels because they did not favour the tariffs quoted by STAR. “If pay channels do not price them at the level that is required, they will not be subscribed to,” he said.

The multi-system and cable operators leave the possibility of rates shooting up after the first few weeks of implementation of the conditional access regime. “The majority of Siticable franchisees have been consulted and they have agreed to forgo the pay channel distribution margin for the initial phase of CAS implementation. Therefore, the prices of the total services will come to Rs 200 plus service tax as applicable to the last-mile operator,” Siticable said in a statement.

In another statement, Cable Operators Federation of India president Roop Sharma urged the Centre to “make strict rules and regulations to discipline the broadcasters and curb their monopolies”. Sharma said operators had come out with post-CAS rates but were still being harassed. Operators had also decided to mop up entertainment taxes from cable subscribers, she said.

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