Mumbai: Every month since January, Raunak Parekh, a 25-year-old doctor from Colaba, has paid for two separate cable connections for his two television sets. “The law states that each TV should have its own set-top box (which decodes scrambled signals; viewers without set-top boxes cannot watch pay channels), so it’s been more expensive than before,” he says. “I guess the cable operator is just following the law.”
The law is the conditional access system or CAS, which has been implemented partially in three metros—Mumbai, New Delhi and Kolkata—since January (Chennai moved to CAS in September 2003).
Overseen by the country’s broadcast regulator Trai, the move to the new system was touted by policy makers, broadcasters, cable companies, and consumer groups as the solution to all their problems.
Consumers believed CAS would give them control over what was beamed into their TV sets and be charged only for this. Broadcasters expected it to give them an idea of how many households they reached (in the absence of this, they have to believe what cable companies tell them). And the cable companies hoped the system would bring order into a chaotic industry. Four months later, no one is sure CAS does all that.
Broadcasters, who lobbied the government and the regulator for the system, claim cable companies—these share 45% of the amount viewers pay with broadcasters—aren’t transparent about the true number of subscribers. The implication is that thousands of subscribers, just like Parekh, are falling through the net.
The matter could be headed for the courts.
A senior executive at STAR India Pvt. Ltd, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the channel had lost patience with cable companies, and that legal action was a month away.
“We haven’t yet taken recourse because we think that it’s a new system,” the executive said.
“Once it is in place, the gloves are off… within a month we’ll start talking tough. I’m sure that somewhere in our contract is a bit that says ‘fatal breach of contract can lead to a switch off’. Once this thing rolls out, the precedence that we establish now will be a precedence set in stone.”
STAR isn’t the only dissatisfied channel. “We’re losing money,” says Kunal Dasgupta, chief executive officer of Sony Entertainment Television. Dasgupta says Sony has yet to receive payment from cable companies. “Cable owners say that one-third of all affected households have opted for a set-top box, and one-third of those have chosen our channels. We call it under-reporting, but they call it negotiation. It’s been a disaster.”
Two weeks into the first phase, by 15 January, 25% of Mumbai’s 5.48 lakh homes affected by CAS had set-top boxes, while 1.09 lakh were awaiting installation, according to the most recent study by TAM Media Research, a television audience measurement agency. However, of the 16.33 lakh homes covered by CAS in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, only 2.77 lakh opted for set-top boxes to access pay channels. The rest accessed only free-to-air channels.
Representatives of cable companies say this reality check has alarmed broadcasters. “We’ve tried talking to broadcasters,” says Ashok Mansukhani, president of MSO Alliance, a cable industry body. “We’ve tried telling them that we’re on the same side of the coin, and that the consumer is on the other side. We’ve got to work together to broaden our base. I’ve appealed to broadcasters to improve the quality of their content,” Mansukhani adds.
The STAR executive agreed that the numbers were surprising, but blamed cable companies: “We want to know why the addition of subscribers had pretty much come to a standstill? There’s been no growth. We aren’t confident that a subscriber management system that works is in place.”
Even then, Mansukhani believes that the switch has progressed well. “I think it’s done better than we thought. My own personal thought was that there would be lots of fence-sitters, but I see that 40-45% of people have taken pay channels,” he says.
The new system is beginning to play a role in the plans of advertisers, who are waiting for the roll-out to be complete and for data on viewership patterns to start rolling in. Meanwhile, for accurate data, they’re going by TAM’s numbers.
“TAM data plays a very important role in allocating budgets as well as deciding rates. When it comes to data coming out of panels or samples we rely on credibility more than accuracy or precision,” says Rahul Welde, general manager, media services, Hindustan Unilever Ltd.
Data on CAS homes should help advertisers, just as it will cable companies and broadcasters, even if it only tells the latter that the viewership for their channels is not as high as they thought it was.
“What will help answer everybody’s queries is a good viewership record of CAS homes,” says Shubha George, managing director of Mediaedge:cia, a media buying and planning agency.
Meanwhile, Nripendra Misra, chairman, Trai, believes the move to CAS has gone well. He claims that the transition, which affected over a million households in the most prosperous neighbourhoods in Kolkata, New Delhi and Mumbai, has been painless. “Can you tell me which other changeover of this size has happened this smoothly?”