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‘Cheeky’ guests ruffle feathers

New Delhi, July 27: The sixth floor corridor of Shastri Bhavan that houses the offices of the information and broadcasting ministry bureaucrats has seen so much activity in recent weeks that the mandarins have ceased to be surprised.

Cable operators have worked out of the office of the secretary, ordering pizza over the phone — ostensibly in aid of a government framing media policy — and broadcasters have given promises on implementing the set-top box regime, promises that died before television soundbytes were broadcast.

Yet, this week a small team from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the super watchdog in the US headed by Colin Powell’s son that oversees transmission and distribution on television, radio and the Internet, made the bureaucrats sit up.

Deputy chief of the commission’s international bureau Roderick Porter led the team during a visit to the offices of I&B secretary Pawan Chopra and his colleagues.

Chopra had visited the commission’s offices some time ago and the bureaucrats were eager to exchange notes on governing media policy. But Porter’s team fired questions on the conditional access system, availability of set-top boxes and the justification for implementing the regime that is set to roll out in cable homes in the four metros from September.

The ministry is still uncomfortable over the legislation enabling CAS because it has thrown up deep divisions in the cable television industry that it has not yet been able to resolve. Amid speculation that a rollback of CAS in some form or the other is inevitable, the government has still maintained that the regime will be implemented.

The happy news for I&B minister Ravi Shankar Prasad’s team is that Delhi BJP chief Madan Lal Khurana, who was so opposed to the CAS regime, is now singing its praises. The ministry has urged the finance ministry to exempt set-top boxes from customs duties for another two months after July.

Despite that, the US commission’s “cheeky” questions on why the government was going ahead with the regime despite being unable to ensure that the supply of set-top boxes is steady were so unnerving that one bureaucrat told the Americans “that should be our concern, not yours”.

Apparently, broadcasters who, as the bureaucrat put it, “are worried about their ratings that barely run into a few hundred viewers” are “trying every trick in the trade” to defer CAS. Discovery Channel’s Deepak Shourie was reported to have told one official that the ministry would hear from the Americans on the subject.

“The FCC team’s ‘searching questions’ on CAS were obviously tutored,” the official said. “Maybe it was a bad idea for us to entertain them.”

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