CAS you like it

Updated: Jul 29 2006, 03:41am hrs
The Delhi High Court recently passed an order that makes it imperative on the government to ensure that the three metros of Mumbai, Kolkata and the capital be fully CAS delivered on or before January 1, 2007. Conditional Access System or CAS has been operative in Chennai since 2003. The idea was mooted in early 2000, as cable

TV operators had begun escalating monthly charges, with no regulation in place. CAS gives consumers the choice of getting only the channels they wish to watch. In the present system, cable operators offer a bunch of channels and one has to either accept or reject the entire lot.

Successful cable channels are heavily dependent on advertising revenue, which depends on the reach of the channel. With CAS, advertisers can threaten to cut ad-rates on less watched TV shows, as CAS enables a count of the exact number of households subscribing to each channel. For local operators, CAS means exact declaration of cable homes, which doesn't happen under the current system.

After the government had declared compulsory CAS roll-out in the four metros, many big operators invested in importing the set-top-boxes (STBs) which enable CAS. Here's a close look at how CAS operates.

How does CAS work

TV channels can be priced or provided free of charge. Pay channels have been collecting their subscriptions indirectly, from cable operators, who give a monthly amount depending on the number of claimed subscribers.

The operators, in turn, offer subscribers a bunch of channels on a take-it-leave-it basis for the entire lot. CAS eliminates the cable operator; an STB placed at the consumer's house monitors what is watched. Consumers pay only for what is watched.

How is this an advantage

It enables the provider and the buyer to deal directly. From the hundreds of channels on offer, the subscriber ticks what he wishes to watch for the stated price. The company providing the channel gets an exact idea of what channel is desired, at what price and by how much.

So, I can only watch cable television for a fee with CAS, right And have to negotiate on the price for each channel

Not quite. There will be two payment categories. The first is the free-to-air channels. This isn't restricted to the government's Doordarshan; every TV company offers a mix of free-to-air and pay channels. The government has fixed a price for a bouquet of a fixed number of these channels-when implementation was last stalled, the figure was Rs 72 per month for any 30 of the free-to-air. And you can watch these without an STB.

In fact, 95% of Chennai's households have opted for precisely this. Faced with a direct choice between pay channels through STBs and simply opting for the free-to-air, most of them decided theres enough choice in going along with only the latter.

The other category are the pay channels. For these, you need an STB. Yet, all operators have indicated they will be offering the terms consumers are already used to-of a bouquet of pay channels. The STB technology enables either: if a consumer is happier bargaining on individual channels, the STB enables provider and subscriber to come to such a deal.

Why the change

Choice. The current system forces you to pay for all the channels your cable operator gives, whether you wish to watch each or not. The operator prepares one package for an entire apartment or area, depending on what is the majority preference. CAS-STB enables an escape from this clamp.

How did it become a matter for the government and courts

Politics, partially. No consumer is happy being forced to pay for a bouquet which he hasnt chosen; he is entirely dependent on the local cable operator. The issue affects every home and, so, is irresistible for politicians. In addition, huge amounts of money are at stake: TV companies, channel heads and the entire advertising industry would kill to get hold of a method which tracks detailed consumer demand, locality by locality, for each offering. Thats how the government came in. And with all their flip-flops and the various conflicting pressures, the courts were asked to adjudicate.