The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Confusion clouds channel choice
- Pocket-pinch puzzle marks countdown to beam box

When Tulsi, the reigning queen of the K-soaps, comes on the STAR Plus screen and exhorts the viewer to set aside (a maximum of) Rs 7,000 to keep watching her on Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, all she does is add to the confusion over conditional access system (CAS) in cable homes.

For, even though the July 14 deadline for implementation of CAS is less than 90 nights away, the hows and whats remain a mystery. So, what is CAS' The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Amendment Act, 2002, makes it obligatory for every cable operator in the four metros to transmit or retransmit programmes of any pay channel through an addressable system with effect from July 14.

In other words, the consumer can pick the pay channels of choice, by investing in a set-top box, the magic decoding device Tulsi has been canvassing for.

It will enable the viewer to buy pay channels off the menu card through an interactive voice-recording tool in the service-provider’s subscriber management system (SMS).

Those who want to watch nothing but the free-to-air (FTA) channels — for example, a mix of Doordarshan, MTV, BBC and Sahara — won’t have to invest in the box. But they must fork out a consolidated sum to the cable operator, to be fixed by the Central government, which will also specify the number of notified FTA channels to be included in the basic service tier and the broad genres to be covered.

The CAS task force recommendation is Rs 71.33 for a bouquet of 30 FTA channels, but the government is yet to clear it.

The four metros, designated as primary terrain for the rollout of the addressable system, house 6.4 million cable and satellite (C&S) homes, with Calcutta and its fringe areas accounting for more than 13 lakh connections. The intent of regulating the industry is good, but the deadline for CAS implementation is “impractical” and could trigger “unmanageable chaos”, feels a consultant marketing pay channels.

Availability of boxes and the prohibitive cost of a digital decoder have been identified as the major roadblocks to CAS rollout. Multi-system operators (MSOs), though, are convinced putting the boxes in place is a six to seven-week exercise. Pricing of pay channels by broadcasters will drive ‘seeding’ (the spread) of boxes, but there is no rate card to go by. “We are yet to receive any commitment on post-CAS pricing of pay channels, which has forced us to be conservative in placing orders for set-top boxes,” observes Ashim Dutta, CEO of RPG Netcom.

“How can we put down the prices so early' We have to go by the seeding speed of boxes. If I don’t get the numbers I am looking for, I might have to raise rates to protect my revenue,” counters a broadcaster’s representative.

If the initial penetration of the boxes is not encouraging, the possibility of some popular pay channels going free for the moment cannot be ruled out, feel observers. Or, the bundling of channels across bouquet barriers. In fact, STAR, Sony, ESPN-STAR Sports and Modi Entertainment Network are in a huddle to arrive at “attractive” packages. Thus, for the sports-crazy Calcuttan, a cracking combination of ESPN, STAR Sports, Ten Sports and DD Sports could well come for Rs 60, whereas buying only ESPN off the menu could come with a Rs 50 tag.

“If this is not bundling, then what is' How can the government leave everything to market forces'” asks Mrinal Chatterjee, representative of city cable operators in the CAS task force, which now fears that cable homes will only wake up to the reality box once the small screen goes blank on the morning of July 15.

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