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Chaos behind the screens
Bipin Chandran |
December 20, 2003
It's a story with more twists and turns than a bad television soap. On one side are the cable operators and the powerful Multi Service Operators who are determined to push through the Conditional Access System.
On the other are the giant broadcasters who are blocking every move and doing their level best to scuttle the launch of CAS.
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Watching from the sidelines is the Government which set the ball rolling, but which is now washing its hands of the entire controversy.
In the middle of this gigantic battlefield are customers like cricket fan Raman Arora. This week Arora -- and 400,000 others who live in south Delhi -- missed large chunks of the thrilling India-Australia 2nd Test in Adelaide because their screens went blank at crucial stages.
After a compromise deal most viewers finally got to watch the winning run being scored. But they are still being starved of most key channels and have to do without the daily dose of Hollywood, Bollywood and many popular soaps.
Why has CAS returned to the headlines and why did the cable operators strike this week?
Possibly because they figured that customers desperate to watch the India Australia series would sign up double quick for their set-top boxes. But the rushed exercise turned into a fiasco because the operators forgot a few details.
Most importantly, they gave little or no warning about the impending blackout. In some homes customers received one-page sheets informing them that they would have to buy or hire a set-top box and giving details about how much this would cost.
Also given was a price list about how much each channel would cost. According to calculations based on these lists most customers will end up spending an average of about Rs 150 more than they do presently.
- According to rough calculations, most customers will end up spending an average of about Rs 150 more than they do presently
- The broadcasters say they haven't been consulted about the decision to transmit channels using CAS. So, the rates are bound to be revised in the very near future
- Zee, which has big interests in distribution, backs the CAS system. Other giants like Star and Sony are, however, against it
- It is still not clear whether there are enough set-top boxes to go around
What the factsheet didn't say is that these aren't the final rates. They are figures that have been conjured up by cable operators because discussions with the broadcasters have broken down.
The broadcasters say they haven't been consulted about the decision to transmit channels using CAS. So, the rates are bound to be revised in the very near future -- almost certainly upwards.
Says a senior executive at Star India: "The cable companies need to have a new agreement with us before showing our channels under the new system. They must have a new commercial and technical agreement with us."
"Before offering the channel to consumers through set-top boxes and encrypting them, the cable companies must have specific agreements with us," said a senior executive with a broadcaster, which is part of the OneAlliance bouquet.
The MSOs (like Siti Cable and Hathway, which supply the channels to their franchisee cable operators) counter that the broadcasters are blocking every move to discuss rates.
"We want to negotiate with the broadcasters on price and ensure that customers pay less than they do currently," says Jawahar Goel, Zee Telefilms vice-chairman and head of Siti Cable.
Siti Cable services a large number of cable homes in south Delhi. Zee, which has big interests in distribution, backs the CAS system. Other giants like Star and Sony are, however, against it.
But the debate about rates is only a small part of the teething troubles that have taken place during the last week.
The cable operators and the MSOs almost certainly miscalculated before launching CAS in south Delhi. They were lulled by the experience in Chennai where CAS was launched smoothly a few months ago. South Delhi, however, is served by multiple MSOs and there are a larger number of cable operators.
The worst part of the entire exercise was the lack of preparation. Beyond sending out leaflets, the cable operators hardly did anything to inform customers about what the future would look like on the small screen. There was barely any attempt at marketing. Customers who wanted set-top boxes had to contact the operators themselves.
In fact, it's still not clear whether there are enough set-top boxes to go around south Delhi. The MSOs and cable operators say that 2,500 set-top boxes were sold even before December 15 when the screens went blank.
And about 2,000 were ordered on the first day itself. They insist that customers are now rushing to get their boxes. As of now, the number of set-top boxes sold has gone up to 15,000 to 20,000.
Is there a shortage of set-top boxes? Most operators insist there are no problems.
"There is demand from the consumers. But there are many issues like pricing and how various schemes will work. I do not think that availability of boxes is an issue," says Vikki Choudhry, who heads an association of cable operators.
Despite the setbacks, the MSOs reckon they'll be able to complete the rollout of CAS in the first zone in Delhi by March 2004, with about 60 per cent consumers opting for CAS. Goel is confident that this will be enough to keep viewership figures at high levels.
Meanwhile, other players have jumped into the act. South Delhi's consumer and resident welfare associations and making their protests felt loudly.
They say that there's a shortage of boxes and that repeated calls to cable operators demanding set top boxes are going unanswered. Some smaller operators admit they don't have enough boxes for their customers.
Behind the screens there has been a blizzard of activity over the last week. On the one hand, Siti and Hathway are holding constant meetings with the cable operators.
At another level, the Government has been trying to keep its finger on the pulse of events even though it says that it would like to stay out of the dispute if possible.
The cable network companies like Siti and Hathway are also attempting to roll out a campaign to publicise the rates for the different channels and the different schemes that are on offer.
There is a recognition on all sides that the CAS implementation hasn't exactly been smooth.
"The cable operators and the MSOs are trying to make the migration to CAS as smooth as possible. That is why we have decided to offer three pay entertainment channels to the consumers till January 1," says S N Sharma, vice president, Hathway.
Why is the Government not moving into action as the rumpus breaks around its head? It was the Government led by Sushma Swaraj, which rammed through the Cable TV Amendment Bill, which provides the legal framework to implement CAS. Now, the Government has decided that it is time for a hands-off approach.
But the Delhi Government has taken centre-stage to ensure an easier roll out. Delhi Chief Minster Sheila Dikshit has set up an implementation committee with representatives from all the stakeholders to oversee the rollout.
The Delhi Government says it is also assessing the cable operators' preparedness in terms of technology, subscriber management and making the entire process consumer friendly.
Industry sources also say that the broadcasters and the MSOs alike have called upon the government to set up a regulator.
"There is no regulation to monitor the functioning of cable operators and their distribution methods. Besides, the government should also take steps to ensure that the MSOs and cable operators are neutral operators without any alliance with the broadcasters," says Aroon Purie, chairman and managing director, TV Today.
The Information & Broadcasting Ministry has been considering the possibility of appointing a broadcasting regulator. The call for a broadcasting regulator has also become louder after the government firmed up its plans to drop the convergence bill. However, for the time being, it seems, just like Raman Arora, other south Delhi residents will have to pay more for channels and the battle between the cable operators and the broadcasters will intensify.