Sine die adjournment of both houses of Parliament on August 12, two days ahead of the closing of the monsoon session has put the I&B Minister Sushma Swaraj in a jam as she had gone on record saying that CAS Bill could be cleared in three working days from August 12 to 14.
The controversial Cable Television Network (Regulation) Amendment Bill 2002 or CAS Bill that provides for mandatory viewing of pay channels through a cable access system was earlier passed by the Lok Sabha. However it was withdrawn from the Rajya Sabha last month amidst opposition from Congress and Left parties. Sushma Swaraj’s attempts to end the deadlock failed as she could not evolve a consensus in her meeting with the leaders of the opposition who were gunning for the government over the petrol pump scam.
The Bill infact seems to have got mired into battle of wits waged by the broadcasters, cable operators, government and the opposition. But perhaps more than the opposition it was Swaraj’s own cabinet colleague who reportedly derailed her plan. The powerful minister who once held I&B portfolio, opposed the bill on the ground that there was no need to enact a separate legislation and instead CAS should be handled by a regulatory body proposed to be set up under Convergence Bill which is currently before the Standing Committee of Parliament. The same line was adopted by the Congress. It also alleged that CAS would empower the government to gag inconvenient channels.
I&B Minister had introduced the CAS Bill in the Parliament after its draft prepared by the task force set up under the convenorship of Joint Secretary Broadcasting was cleared by the consultative committee of Parliament.
The Bill provides that the subscribers pay only for the pay channel of their choice while they can receive basic service tier comprising a bouquet of notified free-to-air channels without set top boxes. The basic tier may include 10-12 free-to-air channels of different genres of entertainment, news, sports, music like DD1, DD2, DD Bharti, Sahara, SABe TV, Aaj Tak, BBC, Aastha, Lashkara, Eenadu, Sun TV etc. While the bills of authorizes the government to decide about the mix and pricing of free-to-air channels, the prices of pay channels have been left to market forces.
At the root of CAS imbroglio is an ongoing war between broadcasters and cable operators. Broadcasters charge cable operators of robbing them of their revenue by fudging subscription figures. Cable operators on the other hand allege that Broadcasters are resorting to arm twisting techniques to hike subscriptions through bouquetisation. The CAS Bill attempt to eliminate forced bundling of weak and strong channels by broadcasters while at the same time preventing cable operators from under declaring their subscribers. And the benefits of the addressability system will intimately accrue to customers as CAS ensures a fair deal in terms of choice, quality and price.
Infact CAS spells catch 22 situation for broadcasters. If they continued to have pay channels, their viewership and ultimately ad revenue may go down considerably as all the 40 million cable TV viewers will subscribe to it. If they term free-to-air they will have to forgo subscription revenue.
The harried broadcasters have even put a question mark over the effectiveness of CAS to fulfill its basic purpose of putting an end to the problem of underreporting of the subscribers by cable operators as in the absence of two-way addressable digital CAS system, Cable operators will continue to fudge the subscription figures by manipulating automated subscriber management system.
The biggest question mark put over the implementation of CAS related to the high cost of set top boxes and about Rs 1500 crore of investment on head end MOSs. The I&B Ministry has found a solution to this problem by way of providing set top boxes on lease. It is also toying with the idea of single conditionality to attempted through single head end and pay channels distributed through MSOs to avoid high investments.
The ministry is thinking of incorporating these changes in the CAS Bill, which means that it has to present the Bill again in the Lok Sabha where it was already passed. To avoid this the only option left before the government is to follow the ordinance route. The government is also under pressure from cable operators who might resort to agitation again. Leading Cable TV Association have already said that if the bill is delayed further, they would hike the cable TV subscription rates to Rs 350/- to 400 per month. And government may well resort to ordinance to prevent the further exploitation of consumers.
But then even if the ordinance is promulgated, it is long road ahead for CAS which despite I&B ministry’s resolve to set up a task force to speed up its implementations, will be implemented in phases covering only four metros in the first phase.