Diversity turns out to be the hurdle

CHENNAI. FEB. 26. The conditional access system (CAS), as broadcasters say, was introduced to meet diverse tastes of cable TV viewers. The CAS platform was a solution to diversity, a system that helped people to pay only for what they watched, went the argument.

But diversity has turned out to be the system's biggest hurdle, cable operators feel. When it was implemented, consumers remained divided. Some were happy paying just Rs. 100 since most of the Tamil channels were free-to-air, some did not want the set-top box because it was unfair that they had to pay for channels that were earlier free, some couldn't afford the box, some were unsure if the system would continue and some switched over and got used to free-to-air channel programming. Like in the case of Kavitha Karthik, a resident of Nungambakkam: "Before we could miss STAR's `bahus', Sahara Entertainment's `Karisma' and `Malini Iyer' filled the vacuum. Today, we are happy with free-to-air content. I don't want to pay more than Rs.100."

Ironically, Consumer Association of India and Consumer Action Group representatives made a case for withdrawal of CAS at a recent seminar in the city. But consumers from many parts of the city reacted strongly to the appeal. "I don't know how consumer forums can make such sweeping statements without considering that less than 25,000 consumers out of an estimated 10 lakh households have actually bought the box," wonders Shridhar, a resident of Anna Nagar.

"About 97.5 per cent of households have already made a choice of spending only Rs.100 per month, without opting for pay channels. It is not fair that residents have to pay more for channels we do not want," says R. Ganesan of Velachery.

Within hours of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India's recommendation to suspend CAS in Chennai, cable operators made their intentions clear. Some said they will charge Rs. 300 plus. Few others said that they would fix the tariff for the next three months after discussions with consumer forums. "It will be around Rs. 200 to Rs. 250," a cable operator said.

"It is very obvious who will benefit out of the suspension of CAS," says Preethi, a housewife from K.K. Nagar, content with the prevailing system. "Broadcasters always complain that they don't anyway get the amount due to them since cable operators under-declare. At the expense of a few quality channels, at least CAS didn't burden the consumers. Now, we are back to the mercy of the cable-operators yet again."

Many consumers are not happy with the TRAI recommendation. Even the cable operators are not ecstatic. "Why suspend CAS when it is viable," asked the Thamizhaga Cable TV Operator's General Welfare Association and the Tamil Nadu Cable TV Urimaiyalargal Sangam. "Wiping CAS off Chennai without giving a credible alternative will add chaos and confusion to a market which is regularised," the cable operators' organisations said in a statement.

How are thousands who "had trusted the government and bought STBs" going to be compensated, they asked. The Information and Broadcasting Minister had stated that "a large number of people were happy with CAS because they had to pay less" only 20 days before TRAI's announcement. "The status quo should be maintained for the next three months or until a credible solution is found," the operators said.