Parliament’s winter session has witnessed some legislative activity. One of these is an amendment to the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995. With an annual rate of growth of 12 per cent since 1999, the spread of television viewership is impressive. Of the 81.6 million Indian households having access to television viewing, 40 million have access to cable and satellite TV. However, within the present regulatory structure, consumers are caught in the battle between broadcasters (like Star, Sony, Zee or Sun), larger cable operators (Siticable, InCable or Hathaway) and 30,000 local cable operators. The last constitute a local monopoly and consumers have no choice, forced to pay for 100-odd channels they do not want. Meanwhile, non-transparency and fudged databases on subscriptions lead to squabbles between broadcasters and cable operators, with advertisers deprived of requisite information as well. The new law pries things open a little. It divides channels into two categories — a free-to-air basic bouquet and a pay channel group. Viewing the latter requires a set-top box. Analog boxes (which only enable TV viewing) presently begin from Rs 2,500 and digital boxes (which allow internet access, interactive TV and internet telephony) begin from Rs 6,000.
These prices might crash with supply-side responses and technology advances. Using the via media of local operators, consumers will choose which pay channels to view and pay for only those. Reliable subscription databases will end the broadcaster versus operator debate, and broadcasters will choose which channels will be free and which ones not so. Operational guidelines are still not ready. Until the new system kicks off in Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and Chennai in July 2003, much is unclear. However, there are several reasons for reservations. First, if consumer choice is paramount, direct-to-home telecast is the answer, and clearly, the government has chosen to pander to cable-operators. Second, the legislation sanctifies the heavy hand of the government, which can decide which channel belongs to what bouquet, apart from monitoring and controlling content. Jobs for the information and broadcasting babus is the objective. Third, monthly subscriptions may not increase significantly, but the cost of set-top boxes will probably have to be borne by consumers. Not only are small-time local operators in no position to pay, they also do not have the resources for necessary upgradation of technology. In other countries, the revolution has taken more than three years to materialize. In India, it has only begun.