Cable TV

Cable ops hijack consumer bodies' press conference

NEW DELHI: The CAS conundrum is getting more confounding and murky.

Even as consumer organizations were attempting to put forward their case at a press conference here today as to how conditional access is "anti-consumer", the proceedings got hijacked by a section of cable operators who entered into a slanging match with the organizers and raised the bogey that the consumer organizations were "acting on behalf of broadcasters."

Some 50 leading consumer organizations of the country, who today announced that they have come under the umbrella organization Consumer Co-ordination Council (CCC) and would file a public interest litigation if the Indian government does not defer CAS implementation, did not seem to have done their homework properly and dished out half baked truths and facts in an attempt that more looked like putting pressure on the government.

About six consumer organisations' representatives present at the press conference --- the big daddy of them all, H.D. Shourie kept away from the interaction with the journalists --- had some three-four points to make. They are the following:

*CAS is anti-consumer

* The implementation of it should be deferred (no time limit given for deferment)

*A regulatory authority should be in place before CAS is rolled out

*Pay channels should not have dual streams of revenue in subscription and advertising and pay channels should not carry ads

While Anand Patwardhan, chairman of the Consumer Guidance Society of India, terming CAS related amendments as a "shabby piece of legislation", said that the PIL against CAS would be filed on the ground that it curbs an Indian citizen (read the consumer)'s freedom of speech and expression and right to information, CCC director S. Krishnan said, "We will file the PIL before 14 July (the deadline for CAS rollout in four metros) if we have to."

Patwardhan said that the Sec 4 a(ii) of the amended Cable TV (Network) Regulation Act is the offensive part and gives the government the control to monitor and regulate even the free to air channels that a consumer in a certain area can watch or not. But when it was pointed out that this can be done only when the government thinks there is a national security risk or some other risks, Patwardhan had no answer.

Though Mumbai Grahak Panchayat member Varsha Raut, who is also a member of the task force on CAS, made some valid points that pay channels should not carry ads and that the "government was forcing CAS" on the consumers, did get carried away when she said that in a 30-minute programme, consumers have to suffer 20 minutes of advertising--- a fact that, if really true, would make broadcasters like Star and Sony look like fools because they claim to be following the global norm of about 10-12 minutes of commercial time every hour.

Those who were present at today's press conference included VOICE's H.K. Awasthi, R.D. Saxena of Consumer Forum, Delhi and Rajan Gandhi of Consumer Unity & Trust Society, amongst others.

According to the consumer activists, the particular piece of legislation on CAS, which has caused many a heartburn, was supposed to give the consumer a choice, but fails to address issues like quality of service or under-declaration by cable operators.

A statement released on the occasion also asks several questions like:

*Why do consumers have to pay for the set top boxes?

* Why has the government failed to address the issue of cable monopolies?

*Why has the government not protected the consumers' interests by specifying the service quality parameters?

*Who will address the consumer complaints as there is no regulatory provision to offer a redressal mechanism?

There were questions galore at the press conference, more from the cable operators who had barged in, but very few answers. There was more of cable operator bashing (by the consumer activists) than valid facts given. Of course, big daddy Shourie --- on whose name the whole press conference was sold to the media --kept away from the heat and dust preferring to communicate through a prepared statement that was distributed amongst journalists.

However, to an important question (why were the consumer organisations sleeping all this six months when CAS was being deliberated upon in the task force to wake up so late?), none of the participants had any convincing answers. Still Raut defended the whole move by saying, "Consumer activists on the task force and she had raised several objections, but the bureaucrats kept ignoring their pleas saying `CAS had to be implemented'."

Unfortunately, nobody from the government was present to validate the observation.

Meanwhile, the cable ops present openly threatened everybody that if there was any rollback of CAS implementation deadline, the monthly cable subscription fee for an average India would go up to Rs 500 (over $ 10 from the existing average of $ 3.5).

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