Television

"There is a conscious effort on the part of vested interests to misguide the consumers" : Jawahar Goel Siticable head

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His reputation as a street fighter precedes him. His style of functioning may be debatable. His spoken language is not as savvy as those who sit in corporate houses' air-conditioned rooms and travel in snazzy cars. But these things don't worry him. And why should it?

When media czar Subhash Chandra wanted to bring Zee Telefilms back on track last year, it was Jawahar he turned to, along with a few other chosen people. Because his street smartness and debatable style of functioning are what were needed to re-establish Zee as the numero uno in India's cutthroat world of media business, Chandra thought.



Jawahar Goel, one of Chandra's three brothers, knows all this, but is not ready to take his place under the sun. For him, he is a small fry in a big business and is only there to protect his family's business interests. Goel also doesn't believe in publicity, if occasional quotes in the media are discounted. Entrusted with SitiCable, the cable arm of India's largest vertically integrated media company Zee Telefilms, Goel has slowly, but surely, managed to consolidate its position and embark on new projects with least fuss.



There is a tale that a former chief executive of Star India has to tell about Goel that bears testimony to the man's skills. During the days when the Rupert Murdoch-controlled Star and Zee were business partners in the biggest cable and television market in Asia, India (China had not opened up by then), at a board meeting Jawahar Goel (then also heading SitiCable, before he was shunted out to other businesses of Chandra) had the 'goras' (white men) totally stumped because of his language and stridency.

But recount this to Goel and he'll smile. He is most likely to shoot back that such tales were a figment of media's imagination as none of the media guys were present during such meetings.

In this rare interview with indiantelevision.com's Anjan Mitra, Jawahar Goel discusses various aspects of the controversial implementation of conditional access that may redraw the rules of the cable industry, which is estimated to be anywhere between Rs 50 billion to over Rs 100 billion. While dwelling on CAS, Goel also does some competition baiting with gay abandon.

Excerpts:

How will you describe the present CAS scenario?

I think everbody, at least most of us, are preparing for the implementation of CAS in the country. But I also feel that a section of the industry is not ready to accept the changes and is trying to wriggle out of everything or get the implementation of CAS delayed. Such people must accept the changes that are happening. The positive side of CAS is that there is a (government-piloted) task force that is keeping watch over everybody and the implementation process.

Do you really feel that the task force would be able to effectively monitor the implementation of CAS?

I have no doubt about that. The task force has been formed after Parliament gave its assent to CAS and the panel is carrying out its constitutional work. I don't think anybody should doubt the effectiveness of the task force, which anyway has representation from all sections of the industry.

Going by the division in the task force, do you feel that the 14 July deadline for CAS rollout would be met?

Division? What division?

There have been serious voices of dissent on the price of basic tier of cable service, for example. Isn't that proof enough of division?

Arre bhai, give me one instance where there are no differences of opinion when it concerns matters as important as CAS.


"A section of the industry is not ready to accept the changes and is trying to wriggle out of everything or get the implementation of CAS delayed. Such people must accept the changes that are happening."

How optimistic are you of meeting the deadline?

The set-top boxes (STBs) would be made available to the consumer when they need it. But the rest depends on the preparedness of others, the whole industry, including the government. Everybody in the industry is trying to do his bit. I am optimistic about the deadline.

One hears that lack of ready availability of boxes was discussed in a task force meeting. How far is this correct?

I haven't heard anything of that sort and I do attend the task force meetings pretty regularly.

The cable operators especially are upset with the pricing of the basic tier and have threatened to go on a dharna. What happens then to the CAS rollout?

The pricing of the basic tier was done by the government (the finance ministry, to be precise) after taking various aspects into consideration. The costing committee went into the issue and came up with a figure. A majority of the task force members don't have any problems with the price of Rs 71.33 ($1 = Rs 47.36) for the basic tier as the task force has suggested to the government.

You are trying to evade the question as to how come a major constituent of the industry, the cable ops, are feeling low because of the low price of the basic tier? Isn't their agitation justified?

The government has its own way of functioning and the pricing was arrived at based on certain parameters. I would agree that the parameters were not very clear, but you cannot do such things and also keep everybody happy. The cable industry has a fair amount of representation on the task force and has the right to object as it has done so also. Their suggestions were looked into and the government then revised the rates upwards from the earlier Rs 45.90.


"The pricing was arrived at based on certain parameters. I would agree that the parameters were not very clear, but you cannot do such things and also keep everybody happy."

You are speaking like a true representative of a broadcasting company. A broadcaster would like the basic tier to be low, so that pay channels can be accommodated within the budget of an average consumer.

Of course, the broadcasters would like the cost of the free to air channels to be low. Who's denying that? But to oversee such issues so that everybody gets justice, arbitrators are appointed and in this case the task force is also the arbitrator. It has done some good work until now. But as said earlier, you cannot make everybody happy and still bring in change.

How ready is SitiCable for implementing CAS?

Without divulging anything to competition, I'd say we're pretty much on track. Whenever the consumers start demanding the boxes, they'll get it.

Though SitiCable may be ready, but are your franchisees or joint venture partners in the cable business ready for CAS?

That's why, I said a lot will depend on the preparedness of the whole industry and not on any individual segment of the industry. I presume that cable operators are preparing for life after CAS. And to solve a bit of their financial problem we have this project called headend in the sky or HITS, which will reduce the investment of a cable operator for CAS.

Has SitiCable placed the orders for the STBs?

Yes we have. When the market is ready, the boxes would be made available. Be assured of that.

"I'd say we're pretty much on track. Whenever the consumers start demanding the boxes, they'll get it."

How many boxes have you ordered for, considering in the four metros there are about 6 million cable subscribers?

Without going into specifics, there would be adequate number of boxes from SitiCable in the market.

Can you be more specific on the number and what would be the cost of the box?

If you insist, SitiCable would have access to about 500,000 boxes and that's the target only for the first four months. A digital STB being brought in by us would cost $ 45.

Do you really feel that a consumer would invest in a box?

At the moment the consumer is getting his cable service, so he's not bothered about it. When he'll stop receiving the service, he'll feel the need for a box and then would come the demand for the STBs. I feel, initially, the demand for boxes would be low, especially before 14 July. As days pass, and CAS rollout happens, the demand for boxes would get more aggressive.

Has SitiCable placed the orders for the STBs?

Yes we have. When the market is ready, the boxes would be made available. Be assured of that.

But don't you feel that the average consumer needs to educated on CAS?

Of course, he needs to be. There are people who are doing that. Still, I feel all this education should be in the right direction. You should not start misleading consumers in the name of education. Tell the consumer the truth.

You feel some people in the industry are misleading the consumers on CAS?

I think so. There is a conscious effort on the part of vested interests to misguide the consumers with an effort that the average consumer becomes hostile.


"SitiCable would have access to about 500,000 boxes and that's the target only for the first four months. A digital STB being brought in by us would cost $ 45"

Why don't you cite some examples of this 'misguidance'?

The truth is there for everybody to see on some channels. If the consumer is told that a STB (in a post CAS regime) would cost up to Rs 7,000 which is about $ 100, then it's misleading the consumer. These people are trying to create doubts in the minds of people about CAS, about the government decision about everything about CAS. That is not done.

Is that why SitiCable or its parent company Zee not participating in the education process?

We cannot be party to something that would amount to misleading the cable consumer.

Will your company undertake some exercise in educating the consumer?

(Laughs) That is why I am giving this interview. So that you can disseminate our views on CAS that would be showing the right path to the consumers and the industry.

But what I cannot understand is the reason for sowing doubts in the minds of consumers. The government has approved the whole process. Before Parliament okayed CAS, the industry's viewpoint had been taken. After that a task force has been formed that has representation from all segments, including consumer activists. I don't understand why should anybody complain now?

So, you mean some broadcasters are misleading the consumers? Can you name them?

Though I would not like to name anybody, but I think some misguidance is on. Tell me, where in the world manufactures of STBs are quoting a price of Rs 7,000 per box? Especially when it is told to them that India boasts of 40 million cable homes and the number is growing. All such manufacturers see business in volume and are quoting low prices.

So, why don't you agree there is division in the industry, which does not have an united front?

As I said, you cannot make everybody happy.

There seems to be some confusion regarding the pricing of the channels in a post CAS regime that I thought was all about doing away with bouquet system. Now people are suggesting newer bouquets and tiering of the cable service. What are your comments?

That's where vested interests come in. Now if tiering of cable service is done, then a consumer will have to buy the basic tier of FTA channels, the basic pay tier, the premium pay tier and a tier separately for movies. If he is a sports lover, then he'd have to buy the sports channel over and above these. The consumer will have to pay more and will become unhappy. If the consumer is unhappy, the cable operator would be unhappy, which, in turn, will make MSOs and broadcasters unhappy. TIERs of cable service would bring TEARS to the eyes of everybody.

Why does a consumer have to buy various tiers to get sports channels? Can't he choose and buy?

No he cannot. Or that is what is being sought to be done through tiering.

But the government said CAS is all about a la carte offering of channels. This way the consumer would feel cheated, contrary to what had been promised by the government?

A la carte price would be more costly per channel. If a consumer wishes to take the basic tier and some pay channels, then the individual price of those pay channels would be quoted very high.

"TIERs of cable service would bring TEARS to the eyes of everybody"

But isn't this taking the consumer for a ride. Especially since CAS was brought about in the name of bringing choice to the consumer at affordable prices?

Let us see how things unfold in the future.

How much is SitiCable investing in the implementation of CAS and HITS ?

There you go again. The investment that is necessary would be made. But I cannot reveal exact investment figures as it would not be in our business interests.

Lastly, if the implementation of CAS gets delayed, who would stand to gain - the broadcasters, the cable ops, MSOs or the consumers?

All those who have committed investments (related to CAS equipment) would certainly not gain. All the effort being put in by the government in man hours spent on making the policy on CAS and other meetings too would go waste. Consumers too may not get the relief promised to them. So who gains (if CAS rollout is delayed)? Probably those who are misleading everybody.

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