TACTV will award a contract for setting up a digital head-end with conditional access system and subscriber management system, provisioning for 20 lakh STBs in Chennai

In Tamil Nadu, a hotbed of cable wars, where the lucrative business of delivering entertainment to cabled homes has never been too far removed from the fulcrum of politics, the road to digitisation could be bumpy owing to the sheer numbers involved.

This is a State where political populism in the past has provided unprecedented primacy to the television set as a basic amenity — a fact best brought out by Census 2011. The Census data pointed to a 48 per cent increase in the number of TV sets in Tamil Nadu. In terms of television penetration, the State with 87 per cent of homes having a TV set was second only to New Delhi.

More significantly, the urban-rural differential in access to television has vanished with 85.3 per cent of rural households and 88.7 per cent of urban homes having a TV set.

A recent FICCI-Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu India survey put Tamil Nadu as the largest market for advertisement in the south with projections that the total number of pay TV subscribers in the State would jump from 15 million in 2011 to 22 million by 2015. The State had about 10 million cable TV subscribers and 4.5 million DTH subscribers, the survey said.

However, the journey to digitisation is much more than a numbers game. There is a lack of clarity on the future role of private players as Multi System Operators (MSOs), with the Tamil Nadu Arasu Cable TV Corporation (TACTV) as a super MSO, the economies of scale of Local Cable Operators (LCOs) and the post-digital price point at the consumer end.

Higher quality pictures and an empowerment in the choice of channels are the biggest and, at present, the surest takeaways for the consumer.

The Tamil Nadu Arasu Cable TV Corporation (TACTV), which was revived from a defunct state by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa in September last year, has launched tenders to complete cable digitisation in Chennai before the stipulated November 1 deadline by covering an estimated 2 million subscribers.

TACTV, which is offering cable TV services through head-ends in 31 districts, will provide digital signals to the LCOs in the DAS/CAS areas of Chennai initially and gradually to a targeted consumer base of 10 million across Tamil Nadu.

TACTV, which will award the contract for setting up a digital head-end with conditional access system and subscriber management system, provisioning for 20 lakh set-top boxes (STBs) in Chennai, expects the firm with the best bid to start the distribution of STBs in a few weeks.

However, even the official thinking is that the two million target could be way off the mark. The Thamizhaga Cable TV Operators General Welfare Association estimates that the set-top box requirement will range from 3 million to 4 million, as only about 1.75 lakh subscribers in Chennai have STBs now.

Association president P. Sakilan points out that at least 27 lakh subscribers in Metropolitan Chennai form the low and middle income segment who may not be able to fork out Rs. 1,500-Rs. 2,000 for a set-top box.

“In this context, we appeal to the State to ensure successful transition to digitisation by subsidising set-top boxes for these segments of the population,” said Mr. Sakilan. 

The Association, which claims a membership of more than a lakh LCOs, including 1,500 in Chennai, has also been demanding that the monthly subscription be raised to at least Rs. 100 as the current rate of Rs. 70 for delivering 100 channels, including pay channels, leaves nothing for maintenance of their networks.  

For, many LCOs who were attracted to the sector for its self-employment opportunity would find the business unviable. There is also apprehension among LCOs that a replacement of private monopoly over cable distribution with a government monopolist in the form of TACTV would leave them playing to a similar-sounding script and tune.

More In: Tamil Nadu | National | News