The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
Email This Page
Political soap opera behind TV box

New Delhi, May 21: Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Union information and broadcasting minister, who lives in Lutyens’ Delhi’s Willingdon Crescent, pays Rs 320 per month to his cable television operator.

Pawan Chopra, the Union information and broadcasting secretary, pays Rs 370.

Prasad and Chopra, by virtue of their office, are the two pilots of the Conditional Access System (CAS) that is to be implemented across four metros from July 14. Their busy schedules leave them with little time to watch television. When they do find the time, it is mostly to watch the news and catch up on the cricket. There is little reason for Prasad and Chopra to pay as much they are for so little television.

No, there is no conflict of interest in the minister’s and the bureaucrat’s desire to implement CAS. Like most cable television viewers, they are consumers too and the consumer is happier if he/she will get more for less.

If the government is taken for its word, the information and broadcasting ministry is committed to implementing CAS from July 14. The law guarantees the viewer a minimum of 30 free-to-air channels for Rs 72.

Under CAS, Prasad and Chopra, just two of the estimated 5.6 million cable television viewers in Calcutta, Chennai, Mumbai and Delhi, will have to pay for each channel that is not free-to-air. An internal study that the ministry carried out before mandating CAS found that the cost of all pay channels currently beamed total a maximum of Rs 216.

If Prasad and Chopra subscribe to all the channels at the current rates, their cable bills will total Rs 288. It is unlikely that Prasad and Chopra, north Indians, will want to watch south Indian pay channels in Tamil, Telugu or Malayalam. That should bring down their cable bill further.

But Prasad and Chopra simply cannot ask the cable operator to start beaming the pay channels. They have to buy a set-top box for that. They can settle for an analog set-top box or a digital set-top box. So they have asked officers in the ministry to work out how much that will cost.

The analog will cost not more than Rs 3,000 (inclusive of taxes) and the digital not more than Rs 5,000, the officers have told them. The digital will make better pictures and sound available. That, in a nutshell, is the conditional access system for the viewer in an ideal scenario.

But cable rates are not uniform across the country. In Lutyens’ Delhi, where the rates are high, the cable bill might come down after the CAS is implemented. But in Calcutta, where the rates are much lower, viewers might have to pay more than they do now when the free-to-air and pay channels are separated.

A CAS task force of the ministry that met here today — Prasad and Chopra are away in Cannes attending the international film festival — had stormy discussions with each of the major players in the cable television industry trying to get their way. The major players are broadcasters, operators and MSOs, consumers and the government.

The meeting took place against the backdrop of intense lobbying. Broadcasters are lobbying for CAS to be delayed or dropped altogether. Operators are lobbying for CAS to be implemented without further ado and to extract more disclosures from broadcasters on pay channel rates so that they can issue orders for set-top boxes (and make more money from the revenue stream that will open up). The lobbying is both overt and covert.

A Bill that has been enacted into law and followed up with a notification will go into implementation. But that cannot be said with any degree of certainty about CAS. High-level sources in the BJP also said today the party was asking the government to review the decision on CAS. The reason cited is that CAS will increase cable television rates and impact harshly on the BJP’s poll prospects in Delhi later this year.

Email This Page