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Minister in Venice, CAS adrift on a gondola

Sept. 1: Union information and broadcasting minister Ravi Shankar Prasad flies tonight to Venice — the Italian city of waterways famed for its romantic boat rides — for its celebrated film festival. In his wake, he leaves behind what one minion mildly described as a “non-launch” of the set-top box regime.

In other words, on Day 1, the conditional access system (CAS), hyped by the Centre as one of its most consumer-friendly initiatives, looks like sailing off on a gondola.

Prasad’s soulmate, if it were to be honest on the record, would say the lawyer from Bihar has been most uncomfortable with CAS since he took over in January this year from the redoubtable Sushma Swaraj. It was Prasad’s predecessor, Swaraj, who piloted the CAS act and promised enough to convert captive audiences of Kyunki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi into votebanks on the slogan of cheap entertainment.

As things stand today, CAS, the system touted to change television viewing habits, is a non-starter in three of the four metros it was to roll out in. This, despite the involvement for more than two months of the most powerful, including the Prime Minister, entrusted to run the country.

Set-top boxes — the machines that are to decrypt pay channel signals relayed by broadcasters to multi-system operators and cable service providers and then to the subscribers — do not adorn an overwhelming majority of television sets in the four metros.

Only in Chennai, where regional politics has played its part, multi-system operators routed pay channels through set-top boxes.

Peter Mukerjea, chief of STAR television that pulls the maximum viewership for pay channels, said: “I am told CAS has rolled out in Chennai. In Calcutta, there are still some issues to be sorted out. In Mumbai, I am still waiting to find out.”

Mukerjea was in New Delhi to attend a meeting of the CAS implementation committee that turned into an I-blame-you-you-blame-me session.

The information and broadcasting ministry additional secretary, Vijay Singh, who chaired the meeting, said: “There are operational problems in Mumbai”. In Calcutta, “I am sure they will be sorted out”. And, in Chennai, he said, “CAS is being implemented”.

Earlier last month, the government deferred the implementation of CAS in Delhi for political reasons. The capital is headed for Assembly elections later this year.

CAS was to be rolled out in the four metros in the first phase. That phase has been staggered and, for the next phase, the ministry is now working on amending the law to invest state governments with the power to implement it.

But the states were pulling at different directions today. Ravi Singh, the president of the Federation of Cable Operators’ Association, Mumbai, blamed the government for not issuing clear directives. “We were waiting for a clear direction from the government,” he said. “But the government is confused. No broadcaster has switched off any channel.”

In Chennai, viewers got the first taste of a lesser number of free-to-air channels without set-top boxes.

“Lots of customers are missing the channels and are willing to go in for the set-top boxes. But they want to wait for a few days due to the larger uncertain picture,” said Jayashree, speaking for one of the leading multi-system operators (MSOs) in the Tamil Nadu capital.

“People here are a little sceptical,” said another operator. With a petition challenging the implementation of CAS pending in Madras High Court and mixed feelings over whether the Centre might “roll back” the regime, viewers want to “take one step after another”, the operator added.

Jayashree claimed that money is not a problem. “If people are sure that CAS has come to stay, 25 per cent of customers in my network are ready to invest in set-top boxes.” As many as 20 of her customers have already got one installed in their homes, she said.

For some, it is a bland fare now because many “popular foreign channels” and the “bouquets” offered by others are out of bounds. “Under the free-to-air dispensation, apart from Doordarshan, “we get only regional channels”, said a viewer in Chennai. But regional channels have a huge viewership in the south.

In Mumbai, it was business as usual for cable operators. Singh, the president of the Federation of Cable Operators’ Association, said operators feel that CAS might never take off. “We are prepared to continue this way since CAS will never be implemented,” he said. The 50-odd operators’ associations in and around the city are part of the federation, he added.

Singh said no arm of the cable industry — broadcasters, MSOs or cable operators — was prepared to implement the regime from today.

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