CAS confusion as deadline looms

Consumers upset at lack of information

MUMBAI — India’s cable and satellite TV industry is in turmoil as the July 15 date looms for the bow of the Conditional Access System (CAS), which will allow viewers to pay only for the channels they watch.

Everyone agrees it’s a good idea, but the industry simply isn’t ready for it.

Its pleas for a gradual rollout have fallen on deaf ears: The government has ruled that viewers in the cities of New Delhi, Kolkata, Mumbai and Chennai must install set-top boxes on all TVs to view pay channels.

Companies are due to announce their pay TV rates by June 10, but even market leaders such as Rupert Murdoch’s Star and Subhash Chandra’s Zee are shy of revealing how many and which channels will be free-to-air and how much the rest of the bouquet will cost subscribers.

And that’s if there are enough set-top boxes available for viewers to access the new system.

India has 40 million TV homes. Of these, 6 million watch pay TV, beamed into distribution centers by satellite and then linked to homes by cable by multisystem operators.

Importing that many set-top boxes is a logistical nightmare. Without them, screens will go black on July 16.

However, Information & Broadcasting Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad brushes aside these fears. He estimates about 1.5 million homes will opt for CAS by July 15 and says 2.5 million set-top boxes have been imported.

If Prasad is correct, this shift may have a knock-on effect on pay TV advertising. Murdoch’s cash cow Star could lose viewers and, hence, ad coin to terrestrial channels.

Price also is an issue. Analog set-top boxes cost close to $60; the digital versions run $100-$150. Tax has been cut from 51% to 5% until July 31 chopping the price of a digital box to about $57, which is still a stretch for even middle class households.

In a country where TVs cost $135- $250 and are considered a luxury, the extra cost of set-top boxes means most will be rented from the MSOs.

The government has mandated that at least 30 free-to-air channels be available in the basic tier for $1.50 a month plus taxes.

Last week Prasad vowed that households will not have to pay more than $4.20 a month as a “combined TV bill” for the 30 free channels, set-top box rental and pay channels.

He also met cable operators who declared they would show a minimum 45 terrestrial channels for the same monthly price.

The combined bill compares favorably to current rates — subscribers pay $4.45 a month to access all 82 pay and free-to-air channels.

While broadcasters claim prices will come down once the MSOs report their subscriber numbers more accurately and, hence, pay broadcasters more for their content, the consumers don’t believe the reduction will reach them.

They are confused and upset at the lack of information.

“The government has botched the entire information campaign,” says one media analyst. “My cable operator has no idea about the set-top boxes or CAS. At this stage even I am not completely sure that I have all the facts.”

Even the choice of free channels is causing controversy.

The Consumer Coordination Council has filed a claim to stop CAS.

It objects to who chooses the 30 mandatory free channels.

“Who is to decide which channel a person in cosmopolitan Mumbai is to watch?” asks Anil Patwardhan of the CCC. “Can an official in Delhi decide which channel someone in a remote corner of India should watch?”

But with just over a month until the deadline, someone had better decide — and quick!