Television

Cable TV digitisation: Parliamentary standing committee meets TV trade in Mumbai

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MUMBAI: There’s been a lot of press and media coverage about the process of cable TV digitisation over the past year or so. Most of it stated has been a mixed bag with opinions about its progress swinging from disastrous to a fabulous rollout. Hence, the political class decided to find out on their own what digitisation has meant for the industry.

The parliamentary standing committee on information technology - headed by Rao Bhirendra Singh - has been making a whistle stop tour of different regions where digitisation has been implemented. 22 October 2013 saw it landing in Mumbai. Prior to this, it has had stopovers in Rajkot and Ahmedabad as well.

The various constituents of the TV ecosystem were summoned to update the committee on the pace of digitisation and their individual specific concerns. “Phase I and II have been completed,” says a government representative. “The committee wanted to be apprised of the learnings from the first two phases by the various players and their preparedness for the next round of digitisation which is slated to be completed by December 2014.”

Each of the players had meetings in camera with the committee and presented their positions. First, the last mile cable operators (LCOs) or last mile operators (LMOs). The Maharashtra Cable Operators Association (MCOF) and Cable Operators and Distributors Association (CODA) represented the LMOs and spoke about the issues faced by them.

Among the concerns they raised were the fact that they had put in physical labour repeatedly during the process of delivering and installing set top boxes. They stated that it is the LCO which bears the brunt of the cable TV viewer’s ire when channels are switched off by the MSOs. But they were optimisitic about their role in phase III and phase IV.

“Our representatives said that we want to be active players in these phases and we are happy to know that the government seems to be intent on having a clear way forward,” says a cable TV operator.

The main bugbear raised by the national and local MSOs - Hathway, DEN, Siti Cable and InCable, apart from others - was the issue of entertainment tax. (Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh have the highest rates.) Their demand: that the LMOs should be made responsible for collecting and paying this levy. Earlier, in the analogue regime, it was the MSOs who had to carry the burden and it is crippling them.

Says an executive from a leading MSO: “Once the billing system is in place in a digitised India, LCOs can collect the tax and pay it and give the remainder amount to MSOs.”

However, an LMO says a better option would be “splitting of bills between MSO and LMO and LMO to subscriber to avoid double taxation for the TV subscriber.”

Broadcasters and aggregators - represented by the  NBA (News Broadcasters Association), a representative from Sony Entertainment Television, Indiacast, MediaPro and TheOneAlliance. The aggregators strangely stayed mum, while broadcasters harped on the usual complaints of carriage fees, lack of subscription revenues and the heavy dependence on advertising. The conversation also drifted to talks about content on television and how channels need to be careful about their content. “This is a major issue as there is no clarity about how the viewer and broadcaster are going to get value out of digitisation. If there is no elbow room for channelising of money for broadcasters then how are they going to focus on better content,” says a broadcasting industry representative.

More such meetings are being planned according to industry sources. “Finally, we will prepare a report and submit it to the parliament for review,” says a source close to the committee.

Hopefully, their reports and inputs will make things easier for all concerned as India’s cable TV ecosystem gears up for its most challenging phase - that of rolling out almost 80 million boxes in small towns and rural India.

(Inputs from Meghna Sharma and Seema Singh)

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