CAS Ordinance may go before cabinet today

MUMBAI: "Banning of ads on pay channels will force several pay channels who have high ad revenues to go free-to-air (FTA), which will be in the public interest."

This is what a government source was quoted as having said in a media report on the government's intention to issue an Ordinance to regulate broadcasters, thus closing a window that had been left open in the Cable Television Networks Regulation (Amendment) Act, 2002.

The CAS legislation has cable ops in its purview but not the broadcasters and it is has been a longstanding demand of the cable fraternity that they also need to be regulated.

The Ordinance reportedly empowers the government to fix the price of individual pay channels, either curb or ban advertisements on pay channels and disallow bundling of weak and strong channels offered as bouquets by broadcasters.

The information and broadcasting ministry has already drafted the Ordinance and got law and justice ministry clearance. It is to go before the Union cabinet today for approval.

What seems to have spurred the government into action is what it sees as "backtracking" by the broadcasters on the "honeymoon period" in the zone-wise rollout plan when all the pay channels are supposed to be offered in the Rs 72-plus-taxes FTA price. The government contends that the plan had got broadcaster approval during the earlier meeting at the Prime Minister's Office, but after that the broadcaster's did a flip-flop on the issue.

At the meeting yesterday with top I&B ministry officials, broadcasters had a top heavy turnout with the likes of Zee's Subhash Chandra, Star's Peter Mukherjea, ESPN's Manu Sawhney, Turner India's Anshuman Misra, Sony's Kunal Dasgupta and Discovery's Deepak Shourie present. PMO aide Sudheendra Kulkarni who has been functioning as the prime minister's point man, was also present.

The Times of India reported that Chandra has floated a new zone-wise rollout formula wherein Zone A would have set-top boxes (STBs) for pay channels from 1 September, with 1-31 August as a "preview" period, when a viewer can watch pay channels also for the Rs 72-plus-taxes price.

Zone B's preview period would be 1-31 September. Zone C would get free preview for two months, September and October, before before becoming CAS illuminated from 1 November. Zone D would have a three-month free period, September through to November, before becoming CAS driven from 1 December.

Chandra has kept the election period in mind with this formula. Zone C and D, which will have two and three month free periods respectively in the plan, will be paying FTA rates when the polls are on.

It was not just the pay broadcasters that I&B ministry officials met yesterday, there were representations made by cable operators, MSOs and the "desi" FTA broadcasters.

FTA channel representatives including Aaj Tak's G Krishnan, Sab TV's Markand Adhikari and Eenadu's I Venkat met I&B minister Ravi Shankar Prasad and reiterated their earlier demand (made when the zone-wise rollout plan was announced last Friday) that CAS should be introduced all at once from 1 September.

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