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Three options on set-top box

New Delhi, July 2: The Prime Minister’s Office today summoned broadcasters of pay television channels for meetings after successive discussions with information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad failed to break the deadlock on implementing a conditional access system for cable television.

The only major broadcaster left out of the meeting was Zee Television. STAR’s Peter Mukerjea and Sameer Nair, ESPN’s Manu Sawhney, Sony’s Kunal Dasgupta and Discovery’s Deepak Shourie met Sudheendra Kulkarni, media adviser in the I&B ministry and officer on special duty in the PMO, and other officials.

The government is considering three main options: “dual feed”, implementing CAS for certain categories (genres) of pay channels, and an area-wise rollout. A fourth possibility is implementing CAS to test the waters in Calcutta and Chennai first before extending it to other cities.

Kulkarni also held a meeting with a delegation of cable operators from Mumbai. Emerging from the meeting, Anil Parab, a franchisee of Wincable (a multisystem operator), said: “We have got the impression that CAS will be there from July 15 in name only. It will not be strictly implemented.” Parab is also a Shiv Sena activist who leads a cable operators’ outfit that has Sena links.

The broadcasters returned from two meetings in South Block with the impression that “the PMO is trying to resolve the stalemate”, as Dasgupta put it. Asked if he was certain that CAS will be implemented from July 15, he said: “The PMO is trying to understand the situation. If there is no deferral and there aren’t enough set-top boxes, you don’t watch television. The situation is that CAS can only be a reality when there are set-top boxes in place and they are not there.”

The broadcasters did not give details on the meetings and were not willing to speak out on advice, if any, that the PMO gave them. “We just told them that there is a misreading of figures. It is wrong to say that cable subscriptions will cost the viewer Rs 500 and upwards because of our prices,” Shourie said.

Mukerjea and Nair said the broadcasters have suggested that operators and the government agree to a “dual feed” of channels, jargon for an arrangement that is projected to beam the same television signals for households with set-top boxes and for households without set-top boxes. (Set-top boxes are required to decode encrypted pay channels so that broadcasters can measure their reach and charge accordingly.)

The broadcasters said the main glitch was that there were not enough set-top boxes for CAS to be effectively implemented.

“The (I&B) ministry was misinformed about the availability of set-top boxes,” Mukerjea said. “The PMO has said there should be no blackout. Keeping this in mind, we suggested a period when cable prices could be frozen, not from any ulterior motive but for the consumer.”

Among the options that the government is now considering to lighten the impact of CAS are a genre-wise rollout (which means making set-top boxes a must for certain categories of pay channels), staggering in the implementation of CAS by marking out areas where set-top boxes will be mandatory for pay channels (for example, Defence Colony in south Delhi, New Alipore in Calcutta), and a “dual feed”.

In another meeting with multisystem operators, the I&B minister asked for an update on their preparations for the CAS regime.

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