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OUT OF THE BOX

A whole lot of nonsense there has been over the introduction of this system called CAS — the conditional access system. All the laboured explanations by the minister and his officials have quite befuddled many of us. Has the good minister stopped to consider just why he has got himself into this mess' Goodness knows there’s a great deal to be done about improving matters in the field of broadcasting without his tying himself up in knots over something he shouldn’t have given a second thought.

For some years I was involved in work which took me to New York a number of times a year. I stayed in a hotel where each room had a television set with a set-top box. Yes, an honest to goodness set-top box. It sat snugly on top of the television set and by selecting a number on its screen you could access a channel. It had an additional facility — there were some channels that showed what they called adult films, and if you selected any of those with your remote, an additional charge was automatically added to your bill. These are not revolutionary new gadgets; they’ve been around for years now. It isn’t essential if you want to watch all the channels that New York has; for that you have the remote control. But it is essential for what the hotel wanted — to charge you for the naughty films you saw. That is, it helped the hotel, not you.

Now we’re being told that the set-top boxes that will be necessary when CAS comes into being will help us select the channels we want to see. But we’re doing that anyway, with our remote. But then, like the hotel in New York, the set-top box isn’t really meant to help you, it’s meant to help somebody else — the commercial broadcasters who have pay channels. Just as the hotel used the box to charge a guest who saw a naughty film, the CAS box will enable the broadcaster to determine how many viewers are watching his channel and charge the cable operator accordingly.

So is all that was said about it being a great benefit for viewers, who would now be able to see the channels that they want to see a load of rubbish' I’m afraid it is. Just consider the situation on the ground today. Those of us who have cable connections get a bill from our friendly neighbourhood cable operator, with an amount, which we duly pay. I have yet to see a bill that gives in detail the channels being provided and the charges for those among them that are pay channels with the rate per channel mentioned. It simply doesn’t happen that way. All of us get a whole lot of channels we don’t ever watch. And we’ll continue to do so after the introduction of CAS, whenever that is — if it ever is.

What we do is use our remote control switches to watch the channels we do want to see. So, if we get bills that are a sort of general charge for our cable connection, and we can select from out of the channels we get the ones we want by using the remote, and the cable operator decides which these will be, as he does today, what, for goodness sake, is the set-top box going to do to improve this situation, assuming it does need improvement'

The answer is exactly what you’ve thought it is; nothing. As far as I can make out, trying to peer through the farrago of statements on this wretched business, the only ones who may benefit from this are the cable and satellite broadcasters who operate pay channels. There’s been a continuing, sometimes acrimonious, argument between them and the big cable operators, the multi-system operators, about how many viewers watch different pay channels. The MSOs are supposed to pay the broadcasters a certain fee for each viewer who watches each pay channel. The MSOs report figures that the broadcasters have always maintained are much lower than the actual number. The CAS system will supposedly provide exact figures of who watches what — which is what the broadcasters want; and the MSOs can’t object, or they’ll be loudly accused of admitting to the allegation that they under-report viewership figures.

Some years ago the audience research organizations introduced what was called the “people meter”. This was a device that recorded exactly who saw what programme on what channel, and selected homes were persuaded to have a set-top box put in for this purpose. They were persuaded earnestly that it wouldn’t harm their television sets, wouldn’t distort the signal, and the data would be collected in a manner that didn’t inconvenience the family. The system is now in place in a number of cities and is the basis of the viewership figures provided to broadcasters.

But these people meters have been installed only in a selected number of homes; how can one determine the total number of people watching a pay channel exactly, on a basis with which no one can argue' Obviously if viewers had set-top boxes, from which data could be collected. And to round off the ploy with a measure of cleverness, the viewer, poor soul, was to pay for the set-top box. And to make him swallow this, the import duties on boxes was drastically reduced, broadcasters and MSOs offered boxes at temptingly low rates and all the while the viewer was bombarded by all kinds of statements on the benefits or ill effects of the system.

And, far from staying away from such a blatantly commercial deal, the government gaily jumped into it. Why did they do it' This is, sadly, what happens when powerful commercial interests and the government cosy up to each other. The mutual back-scratching is not only pleasurable, but profitable in other ways.

No one is saying that watching television shouldn’t be made easier and the selection of channels given over to the viewer. But the matter could have been thought through a little more carefully, and the wisdom of the technical experts sought. One could then have seen not only what the alternatives are, but how practical and how best implemented too. Now all one can do is wait and watch this grotesque act being played out, for entertainment, if for nothing else. That, after all, is the aim of commercial television.

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