The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Life will not be the same for satellite television viewers in India after July 14, at least not in the four metropolitan cities. The conditional access system will certainly re-condition the middle-class home, just as the introduction of cable TV did a decade ago. The bitter opposition notwithstanding, the CAS seems to have managed to enter into the four big metro markets. The immediate impact will be a hefty increase in the monthly expenses of an average household for paying cable TV bills.

The proponents of the CAS may argue that the cost of free-to-air channels will be just about the same as before. But it is already quite clear that few of the channels with high viewership are free to air. This includes in particular channels for kids and those of special interest, such as Discovery or Animal Planet.

A quick calculation suggests that the monthly cost for the same channels that the household receives now will be about Rs 400 or more — even upto Rs 578 a month, a hundred per cent increase over the current budget. And this does not take into account the cost of the set top box.

The second irritant for a consumer is that set top boxes are network-dependant. One cannot, therefore, change the cable operator for poor service. Once hooked, one has to remain hooked to the same cable operator, friendly or unfriendly. In sum, the CAS will turn out to be good for cable operator, but bad for the consumer.

Too many losers

The new system is bad for broadcasters too. The pay channels which claim huge viewership risk getting exposed. Besides losing out on viewership if they stick to their high price tags, they stand to lose commercial revenue too. Advertisers will benefit, because now they can know exactly how many eyeball contact their spot received. Accordingly, the rules of revenue generation will change. If reports are to be believed, it has started changing already.

Predictably, some broadcasters are alarmed. The solution lies in turning free-to-air. The only snag is that the rules do not require the cable operator to supply more than 30 free-to-air channels. Nothing can prevent them from asking for a carriage charge for each channel outside of the 30 they are showing. In short, broadcasters might end up paying the local cablewallah even to reach their viewers.

If the CAS benefits neither the consumer nor the broadcaster, why is there such a mad rush to implement it' To be fair to the proponents, the bill did go through the usual parliamentary processes, a date was fixed, and finally, a switchover has been decided. It is just that the consumers have been a trifle late in waking up to the reality and voicing their grievances.

Pay as you use

But still the question remains: why do we have to bring in the CAS' To bring in new products, perhaps. The cable operator will now provide a consumer with broadband internet, content on demand, the option to pay per view, and even interactive TV. Isn’t it exciting enough for a changeover' In fact, the CAS will, in one swoop, make moral policing of content almost impossible on cable TV. This libertine approach towards entertainment certainly deserves praise.

Was the CAS really necessary' Very soon, the government is going to open up direct-to-home television, which can serve the same purpose as the CAS. Urban consumers may soon have cable TV services along with telephony and internet. Of course, it is true that there is no harm in offering the consumers a few more choices than they have in the form of the CAS.

If, in the final analysis, a consumer feels cheated — his monthly bill rising more than 100 per cent when the new system is implemented — he needs to be consoled. Any new service, or repackaging old ones, costs extra. We are paying more than before for the electricity we use. This has always been the fate of consumers who are willing to pay. But “conditional access” applies to all the good things in life — you have to pay as you use.

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