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"With CAS, I think some pay channels will become free to air"

How would you describe India's information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj ,DTH,? Gutsy and headstrong! Slightly strange for one born on 14 February. There have been times when rumours in Delhi's political circles have suggested that she has reached the end of the road as a minister and every time the bindi and vermilion sporting Swaraj has proved her critics wrong. So much so that once when she was actually shifted out of the information and broadcasting ministry a few years back to be made Delhi's chief minister by the Bharatiya Janata Party with an eye on the state elections, she emerged stronger though the party lost the state to rival Congress Party at the hustings.

In her third stint at Shastri Bhawan, which houses the I&B ministry, amongst others, in the Capital, Swaraj has not only managed to wrest the initiatives from other aggressive fellow politicians like IT& telecom minister Pramod Mahajan (who probably secretly wishes that the I&B ministry is also merged with his present portfolio so he can lord over the convergence space), but has also unleashed policies which are sure to have far-reaching effect on the media industry. Criticisms notwithstanding, of course.

In this interview with indiantelevision.com's Anjan Mitra at her residence one Saturday late last month, a relaxed Swaraj discusses her ministry's achievements in 2002 and the agenda for the new year in general and, in particular, the first quarter of 2003.

What would you say are the highlights of 2002 as far as I&B ministry is concerned?



Three big decisions were taken --- allowing foreign direct investment (FDI) in the print medium, setting the road ahead for implementation of conditional access system and okaying the community radio scheme. I am sure all these milestone initiatives will have far-reaching effect on the industry concerned in the coming years. There's a sense of satisfaction that we have managed to achieve all these in a short period of time.

But decisions on FDI in the print medium and CAS have been criticised for various reasons and some issues still remain to be addressed. So, how can they be called milestones?



Why do you have such a pessimistic view? Look at it from the other side. Take, for example, the FDI in print medium. Various governments for years have discussed the issue, but it is only this (BJP-led National Democratic Alliance) government which has finally taken a stand after having looked at all the pros and cons. This demand has been made by a certain section of the print medium and we have acceded to the demands after having put in proper checks and balances.

     

"Let me make myself clear that there is no move to review any policy guidelines on DTH. "     

    

Still, if you take CAS, the industry is still unsure of the rollout and the issue of availability of set-top boxes has not been resolved. Do you foresee a bumpy ride for CAS?



I don't foresee any bottlenecks. It is just a matter of time when small issues will get sorted out. We have this committee, comprising all the stakeholders in the industry, which will soon finalise the pricing of the basic tier of service and the minimum number of channels which should be there in that tier. What's more, okaying of CAS has got some very positive response. Three chief ministers of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka have written to me requesting that either their states should also be included in the first phase of implementation of CAS or more cities should be included as in the case of Maharashtra (Mumbai is part of the first phase).

As far as boxes are concerned, when the government finally dispenses with all the regulatory framework like notification on CAS in the Gazette, box manufacturers will start manufacturing boxes here. CAS is sure to change the whole TV scenario and the way business is done by broadcasters and cable operators in an environment where consumers will not be arm-twisted by cable operators any more, but will pay only for what he wants to watch.

Will the government include more cities in the first phase of CAS rollout?



I don't want to mandate anything that is not implementable. CETMA (the apex body of electronics goods manufacturers in India) had submitted a paper that assures the government that if there is enough demand, cheap boxes can be made available. According to its estimates, if there is a demand for 10 lakh (1 million) boxes (in analogue mode), then the price can be as cheap as Rs 1,500. Let us see how the market forces behave as also what CETMA members do.

Experts say that analog STBs, which would be in demand initially, are not hack-proof and questions have been raised over their inter-operability. What is the government stand on this?



As far as inter-operability is concerned, the government does not expect any problem. Let me make it clear that the government is not mandating any technology and the Bureau of Indian Standards has already come out with the specifications for the boxes. Neither has the BIS told the government that piracy is an issue with analogue boxes.

Do you think that in the wake of CAS, some pay channels may turn free to air to be part of the basic tier of FTA channels?



Broadcasters depend on numbers and eyeballs which may get affected in the case of pay channels, I think. Advertising revenue is dependent on the number of homes a programme reaches and the popularity shows up in TRPs. With CAS all these aspects may change. I think some pay channels will become free to air.

Why has the Star News issue become so controversial and why is the government taking so long to give it certain permissions?



I think the media has created the controversy by raising various questions. The government is looking at formulating a policy covering electronic medium, FDI and news channels.

We have received an application from a company (Star News Broadcasting) which is registered abroad and all its directors are foreigners. This company wants to control a news channel that is meant for India predominantly. Until now the government had not been faced with such a situation. The issue of Star News is unlike that of BBC, for instance, which is an international news channel with some Indian news too. Until now, there has been no restriction in this sector, but Star's proposal has made us think. So all that I have said is that I would like to get some guidance from the full Cabinet so in future nobody can accuse me of playing favourites.

What are the options before the Cabinet on Star case?



The Cabinet can take a view on the issue and tell me what to do. It can look at various options, including the following:



- Maintain a status quo and let things continue as they are



- Recommend a complete ban of foreign investment in the news category in the electronic medium



- Suggest that the FDI component in the news category in TV be made equal to that in the print medium where in the news category, foreign participation is capped at 26 per cent



- Recommend having FDI capped at 49 per cent, prevalent in telecom and other broadcasting segments

What is your personal opinion on the issue?



I don't want to express my personal opinion now, but would like the Cabinet to take a collective decision and tell us which we will follow. If the Cabinet asks for my personal opinion, then I'll give it there.

Hypothetically speaking, can Star continue taking content from an Indian company and have that company uplink from India for Star News?

Of course that can happen. It is being done now by NDTV, isn't it?

Can Star News Broadcasting take content from Star India Pvt. Ltd. and get uplink permission from India? Would Star India be considered an Indian company by the government and will there be some changes in the permission given to others like Zee Telefilms and also NDTV which have foreign investments?



Yes that can be done. As far as I understand, Star India would be considered an Indian company as per the law of the land.

Any future policy decisions as and when they are taken will also guide others like Zee Telefilms that have got uplinking permission (despite having NRI/OCB component). But let me add that all the directors in Zee were Indian (unlike those in Star News Broadcasting).

Is the government looking at reviewing the KU-band DTH policy guidelines as it has failed to attract any investment till now?



Well, two applications are being examined by the I&B ministry. I don't think more will come as in DTH, worldwide, monopoly is favoured instead of having many players to increase competition.

Let me make myself clear that there is no move to review any policy guidelines on DTH.

What is I&B ministry's agenda for 2003?



I got my agenda for the first three months ready, at least. We would like to have the broadcasting council to regulate content on TV ready, set in motion the process for opening of the FM radio to private players in the second phase, sign film co-production treaties with Britain, France and Canada and give more teeth to the Press Council of India (PCI acts as a watchdog in the print medium).

After having initiated so many things in 2002, I'd like to keep the momentum. The government would introduce a Bill on the formation of the broadcasting council and I hope it will be passed during the next session. We cannot keep on waiting for the Convergence Communication Bill (to be enacted into a law) for content regulation to come into effect. Anyway, so many amendments have been suggested in the Convergence Bill that I think it would take quite some time before any progress is made on that front.

We would also like that in the second phase of FM radio, private players and All India Radio do not duplicate their efforts. We would like that in those places where AIR operates FM stations, private players should not enter and rather go to cities where AIR does not operate FM stations. This way, FM radio can cover the whole country.

Do you foresee the I&B ministry being merged into the IT & telecom ministry to get ready for the convergence era?



I don't see any possibility in that direction. I&B ministry's role does not end with broadcasting and carriage and content only. The ministry, for example, acts as the official PR of the government through the Press Information Bureau, takes care of spreading social messages of the government. Who'll organise the film festivals? There are many aspects that are to be looked into. I think I&B ministry would continue to be there even in an era when convergence is total.

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