Zee TV chieftain Subhash Chandra backs government's CAS initiative

Subhash Chandra, chairman of Zee Telefilms, one of the biggest broadcasting companies in India, today set the cat amongst the pigeons when he said that he endorses the government's decision in attempting to implement the conditional access system (CAS) as it will result in increased subscription revenues for the Zee Network over a period of time.

"We support CAS as it is in the overall interest of the industry," Chandra told select journalists in Delhi on Thursday, a day ahead of a meeting being organised by the Indian Broadcasting Foundation on CAS which has started worrying most broadcasters.

According to Chandra: "Even if 50 per cent of the (38 million) cable homes in the country go in for set top boxes and I get assured revenue out of it, as a broadcaster I am happy."

Chandra added that like all broadcasters he's also "skeptical" of CAS. "But I don't fully subscribe to some broadcasters' point of view that CAS is not needed at all in India and is not implementable," he added.

He also said that his company is talking to various financial sources, including banks, to fund part of the investment needed for seeding the market with set top boxes (STBs).

"Because ultimately the subscriber will have to pay for the STB we'll have to see how to make the payment easy for him. If banks finance us we can supply the STBs to subscribers on lease for a nominal monthly rental," he explained.

Pointing out that through CAS Zee Network would see a substantial hike in subscription revenue, Chandra said, "We at Zee closed the last financial year ended march 31, 2002 with about Rs 100 crore (Rs 1 billion) in subscription revenues. Over the next four-five years we expect this amount to go up to at least Rs 500 crore."

Chandra also feels that the advent of CAS will benefit the average cable subscriber who will have the option of taking a basic tier of service comprising free-to-air channels and additional tiers of service on payment of some extra amount.

"CAS would pave the way for various tier of services, including two-way addressability and broadband services, becoming a reality in India over a period of time," the bidi-smoking chairman of Zee Telefilms said.

Asked what does he think the basic tier service will cost (to be determined by the government as per the amendments to be carried out in the Cable TV Regulation Act, 1995, he said, "I would feel anything between Rs 100- 120 would be a fair amount."

"We at Zee don't see ourselves reverting to being free to air because of CAS. However, we can look at a Zee TV channel with a different set of programming for being part of the basic tier."

Chandra also said that the cable industry would have to make an investment of about Rs 8,000 crore (Rs 80 billion) if 50 per cent of the cable and satellite homes are fed with STBs which cost about Rs 4000. He also said that CAS is a win-win situation for everybody -the subscriber pays for what he wants to watch, the cable operator gets an assured income and the broadcasters would not crib about under-declaration by cable operators.

"At present, I think underdeclaration (by cable operators) amounts to almost 83 per cent," he added.

Asked by, whether he foresees Zee TV, a mass-based entertainment channel, reverting to being free to air to protect its viewership (as all pay channels mandatory have to come through a STB, as per the cabinet decision), Chandra said, "We at ZEE don't see ourselves reverting to being free to air because of CAS. However, we can look at a Zee TV channel with a different set of programming for being part of the basic tier."

Chandra feels that the Indian pay channel market is currently worth about Rs 8,000 crore which is likely to to grow to about Rs 12,000 crore in four to five years with the arrival of CAS.

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