This Bulletin Is Brought To You Free, For Now

New Delhi: | Updated: May 20 2003, 05:30am hrs
Television broadcasters are yet to announce the channel pricing for the conditional access system (CAS) era, which is set to roll out July 15.

But, the industry buzz is that in the short-term at least, news channels will come for free.

However, analysts say that ultimately news channels will have to follow the pay model to sustain their business.

In the past couple of months or so, five news channels have been launchedStar News, NDTV 24X7, NDTV India, Sahara Samay and Headlines Today.

Among the new crop of news channels, Star News is part of the Star bouquet, which is pay.

While the two NDTV channels are also being distributed in a pay bouquet One Alliance (Sony-Discovery alliance) theres no additional cost for them.

The rest of them are free to air channels.

Of the news channels which already existed, Zee News is in a pay bouquet, while Aaj Tak is distributed free to air.

Add to that news on Doordarshan (free to air) and foreign channels like BBC (free to air) and CNN (part of the Zee-Turner pay bouquet), besides business channel CNBC (also in the Zee-Turner bouquet).

Although theres no commitment from any broadcaster on whether their news channels will be free or not post-CAS, some of them are already being offered on dual feed. For instance, Star India COO Samir Nair admitted recently that Star News is being distributed at several places as a free to air channel, despite it being part of a pay bouquet. According to Mr Nair, the channel is available free to air in locations where decoder boxes have not reached. However, he added that as soon as the boxes reach all parts of the country, Star News will not be offered as a free to air channel.

Broadcasters may sound gung-ho about the news channels and their ability to stay pay post-CAS, but media analysts dont see that happening immediately. One reason, as an industry expert pointed out, is that the government would not allow bundling of channels. While now a news channel may come as part of a pay bouquet, post-CAS it will have to be priced individually, he said.

Mudra Media Director Mona Jain sounded dead sure when she said all news channels would be free to air post-CAS. She reasoned that the recently launched news channels would not be sure of viewership post-CAS, and therefore would remain free. For a while at least. According to Mindshare India investments director J Satyen, news channels are going to adopt a wait and watch attitude in terms of pricing. While they may not immediately go pay, Mr Satyen said: remaining free to air will be a loss-making proposition for them in the long-term.

Agreed another media expert that news and other niche channels will have to go free to air to protect their ad revenues post-CAS. (News channels have a little over 5 per cent of the approximately Rs 4000-crore TV advertising market. The ratio of advertising to subscription in TV business is approximately 60:40.) But, according to him, subscription revenue is more secure than advertising revenue. Ad revenue may fluctuate from day to day, but subscription revenues will be much more stable, he said. He compared TV subscription with newspaper readership and how it is more like a habit. So, ultimately, even news channels would need to go pay and depend on subscription revenues, he added.

Now, with even the public broadcaster Doordarshan going all out to strengthen its news bulletins, theres competition that news channels cannot ignore.