New Delhi, Dec. 25: The Union information and broadcasting ministry has formed a task force to implement the conditional access system for television that the government believes will give viewers the freedom to pick and pay for the channels of their choice.
The task force has been given six months to ensure that the access system takes off.
The Conditional Access Bill was approved by Parliament in the session that closed last week and is now pending presidential assent. But assuming that the assent is a formality, the ministry has begun laying the ground for its implementation.
Sources in the ministry said the task force — chaired by joint secretary (broadcasting) Rakesh Mohan — will determine the number and mix of channels in the “basic tier” and will also stipulate the maximum rate at which operators can charge viewers for channels in this category.
The task force comprises representatives of broadcasters, advertisers, operators and viewers bodies. The ministry sources said the notification will be issued after the report is submitted.
Once the Bill becomes an Act, the “basic tier” will comprise a package of channels that will be carried by all operators and will be available to viewers at minimum charges. It is understood that suggestions for the pricing of the “basic tier” range from Rs 40 to Rs 200. The task force will fix the maximum price at which operators can charge viewers for the “basic tier”.
However, the “basic tier” will not be uniform and will vary from city to city and even within a city from locality to locality.
The ministry’s move to sort out the modalities is largely the result of an eagerness from the industry — particularly cable operators and manufacturers of set-top boxes, the equipment through which channels will be routed — to see the access system is implemented speedily.
For the time being, it has been decided that the system will be implemented in the four metros — New Delhi, Mumbai, Calcutta and Chennai — and its coverage area will be gradually expanded countrywide.
Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh have written to the ministry, asking for the system to be implemented throughout the states. But the Centre wants a phased implementation mainly because there may not be enough set-top boxes available to cope with the demand.
The sources expect lobbying by broadcasters to get their channels into the “basic tier” on the assumption that it will have the maximum viewership and hence the maximum potential to raise advertisement revenue.
The primary channels of the public broadcaster, Doordarshan, will continue to be beamed under the “must-carry” clause of the Cable Television Networks Act and will technically not be dependent on the access system that will regulate only cable channels. DD primary channels are terrestrial.
The sources said it had been made clear to the broadcasters that they will have to price their pay channels individually and not as a “bouquet”. This is clearly prodding the industry towards a shake-out because it is anticipated that broadcasters who can afford it may turn some pay channels free-to-air.
Technically, cable operators and set-top boxes cannot be used to control viewership of free-to-air channels. The control will be dependent on the demand from the viewers for such channels.
In deciding the “mix” of channels for the “basic tier”, the task force will consider a variety covering news, entertainment, sports and special interest.
It is not yet clear if a uniform system for financing set-top boxes will be evolved. The government will take a hands-off policy on such boxes, allowing operators, broadcasters and viewers to determine the pricing.
A preliminary study by the Consumer Electronics Technology Manufacturers’ Association has indicated that an analog set-top box will cost Rs 2,500 apiece on a total production of 1 lakh. This could come down to Rs 1,700 apiece on a production of 5 lakh sets. A digital set-top box can cost up to Rs 8,500.
A Merrill Lynch study in October pointed out that there are an estimated 4 crore cable homes in the country. The four metros account for 5.2 million cable homes (Mumbai 2m, New Delhi 1.4m, Calcutta 1m and Chennai 0.8 m).