New Delhi 17 December 2003

The Government opened a Pandora’s box of problems and tip-toed away when the going got tough, feel consumer organisations. Even as recently as the 8th December, Rajan R Gandhi, Director of the Consumer Unity & Trust Society, had in a Fax to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry pleaded with the Government to intervene and come out with a “no-nonsense” statement placing consumer welfare above the machinations of the Cable TV service providers.

Consumer organisations are not opposed to CAS per se, says Gandhi. However, they insist that steps be taken by the Government to actually demonstrate its concern for consumers, rather than merely paying lip service. Such steps would include the establishment of at least a pro tem regulatory body which would address the questions of poor service, arbitrary price hikes and lawless behaviour by Cable TV service providers. The regulatory body should also look at the bundled pricing policy of Cable TV channels which, under the guise of offering “bouquets”, forced a consumer into paying for channels he had no interest in.

There were basic issues involved, too, he said. In the first place, it was not clear why the consumer had to pay for a set-top box. The row over revenue-sharing was between the Cable TV service providers and it is they who should pay for it. Secondly, “bouquets” were surely a restrictive trade practice which should not per permitted. The Government had initially made some noises about setting a cap on the pricing of individual channels versus “bouquets”, but had not progressed this idea any further. Thirdly, Cable TV operators were currently transmitting 30 (out of a possible 85) Free-To-Air channels which their customers had little interest in watching, thus forcing them into buying STBs even for the purpose of watching free channels.

The situation which has emerged over the last few days in Delhi is that the total outlay of the consumer stands every possibility of being higher than ever before. Surely this is not what the Government, even the PMO, meant when it talked about Consumer interests coming first, said Gandhi. The State Governments of West Bengal and Maharashtra would do well to learn from the Delhi example, he felt, since Kolkata and Mumbai are the next to fall under the CAS axe.

For several months, it has been clear that without competition or some sort of independent regulatory body, the Cable TV industry was going to blatantly disregard the interests of its own customers by exercising the unhindered monopoly rights that it has. CUTS and other consumer organisations had repeatedly drawn the attention of the Government to this probability, but to no avail.

In the absence of Government action the only near-term solution, Gandhi felt, was a complete boycott of pay-to-see Cable TV channels. When advertisers saw that consumers were not watching pay channels, they would withdraw commercials from the channels and broadcasters, their MSOs and Cable TV operators would be brought to heel.