Television

CAS deadline will be met, say major players; LMOs refuse to play ball

MUMBAI: CAS on schedule!

This was the common message delivered by broadcasters and MSO (multi-system operators) representatives after the first meeting today of the recently constituted 16-member conditional access system (CAS) implementation committee today.

The meeting, which was held at Mumbai's Doordarshan Kendra, however saw the last mile operators and their representatives on the panel striking a contrary stance.

One definitive that came out of the meeting though was that the pre-CAS "honeymoon" offer of Rs 72 (plus taxes) for television channels in the four metros is off. The proposal can now be stated as officially scrapped.

I&B ministry additional secretary Vijay Singh was one of the first to come out of the three-hour plus meeting. Singh said: "In today's meeting, we discussed several issues such as pricing of the pay channels and availability of set top boxes (STBs). The MSOs have informed us that they are in a state of readiness with the headends and the STBs in place. The broadcasters and MSOs have assured us that they will be ready with the pricing and commission structure before the next meeting on 14 August." The next meeting is scheduled to be held in Delhi.

When asked about the confusion that still surrounds CAS, Singh emphasised: "Things were never chaotic . The broadcasters and MSOs have old existing relationships and they have assured us that they will sort out the contentious issues and work hand in hand." When questioned about the fears expressed by the smaller cable operators, Singh feigned ignorance and said: "We are not aware of any apprehensions whatsoever. Even if there are any, it will be taken care of."

Speaking about the monthly cable rates of Rs 72 per month charges for free to air channels, Singh stated that the CAS task force had finalised these rates long back and there wouldn't be any review at this point of time. "Even if we reconsider this, it will be much later," Singh said.

Zee Telefilms CMD Subhash Chandra, Star India CEO Peter Mukerjea, Sony Entertainment Television India CEO Kunal Dasgupta and Living Media TV Today CEO G Krishnan were among the broadcasters present at today's meeting.

Zee's Chandra said: "Everything is on schedule. We are working together with the MSOs and cable operators. All the stakeholders have decided that we shall undertake implementation in a way that is best suited to protect consumer interests."

According to Mukerjea, "Some progress has certainly been made. Once we resolve issues with penetration, number of households and (revenue share) margins, we should be there."

LMOs SAY WILL FIGHT TO PROTECT INTERESTS

Shiv Sena Vibhag Pramukh and party spokesperson on the issue of the implementation of CAS in Mumbai Anil Parab however was not so optimistic. "There hasn't been any improvement in the situation. In today's meeting, I made it clear right at the outset itself that the implementation process is not being undertaken in a way that is in favour of the cable operators as well as the consumers. I asked the ministry officials to allay our concerns first before talking about the state of readiness." .

Parab also added that he provided documentary evidence that the broadcasters' strategy to declare bouquet rates won't offer any substantial benefit to the consumers post CAS. "If the broadcasters continue to push bouquets even post CAS, then we are much better off today then in the future," Parab added.

Speaking on behalf of the cable operators, Parab said: "The cable operators will not allow any technology that will be detrimental to their interests. I have briefed the ministry officials about the plight of the small cable operators and they have given assurances that they will look into the matter and come up with solutions within eight days. However, I feel that the ministry officials are confused and unclear."

Parab reiterated that the government officials couldn't bind the cable operators while letting the broadcasters scot free. "The ministry should have imposed restrictions on the pay broadcasters too - for instance cap on the rates declared initially and freeze on the rates for a particular time frame. Why has the government imposed restrictions only on the cable operators?" questioned Parab.

When reminded that Vijay Singh had ruled out the review of the Rs 72 FTA monthly cable rates, Parab offered: "Since they were part and parcel of the I&B ministry's decisions, these bureaucrats will never admit their mistakes. The fact of the matter is that the CAS task force had arrived at Rs 46 after undertaking a detailed costing exercise. However, the decision to arrive at Rs 72 was purely a random one. They should increase it from Rs 72 to Rs 150 in the same manner."

Parab lambasted the other committee members by saying that they (bureaucrats, MSOs, broadcasters) never reveal the true picture or the real issues discussed within closed rooms. "These people forget that the success of CAS is in the hands of the cable operator," Parab added as a parting shot.

Spoken like a politician and these words were like music to the Parab's followers - the cable operators who had assembled at the venue.

INCableNet distributor for Mumbai's suburban area of Borivali Ganesh Naidu actually confronted Vijay Singh while the bureaucrat was on his way out. "These broadcasters and MSOs have not involved us in anything. Please allow us to present our case. We are ready to organise a seminar to help you understand the real issues hounding the LMO," Naidu told Vijay Singh even as Singh got into his car to catch his Delhi flight.

Later on, while speaking to indiantelevision.com, Naidu said: "The cable infrastructure belongs to the cable operator. The MSOs or the broadcasters cannot force us to do anything. Collections for 2003 have been affected due to this bungling; we are in the second half of the year and nothing is still clear. We shall not accept the Rs 72 figure because it will not help pay our basic costs. Who will pay the electricity bills required for providing FTA channels for an entire day or the salaries of the staff or maintenance charges?"

Ravi Kalastri and Shakeel Shaikh of the Eastern Cable TV Operators & Welfare Association echoed Naidu's concerns by saying: "We knew that nothing would be achieved in today's meeting. More than 300 cable operators affiliated to our association will meet tomorrow in Chembur (a Mumbai suburb) and decide our next course of action.

We shall not allow the small cable operator with 100-200 points to be wiped out of business - we are happy with the present system. The success of CAS depends on us and we shall protect our interests."

Well, at least in Mumbai, cable operators seem united and the support of Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray has given them the confidence to defy the dictates of the I&B ministry. Morchas and cable black outs may well be among the sideshows of the CAS rollout!

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