Why the broadcast sector is unable to help the government’s admirable missions to ease business and promote sports
| January 18, 2018
Of late, there have been some anxious moments for broadcasters and no one knows where it’s been coming from, and why it’s happening.
For starters, the ministry of information and broadcasting is the licensor for TV channels, in two categories: (i) news and current affairs (‘news channels’) and (ii) non-news and current affairs (‘general entertainment channels’, or GEC). GEC includes channels on themes like entertainment, sports, movies and spirituality and kids as well as religious channels.
News channels, as is well known, have complete freedom to live telecast any event. GEC channels, on the other hand, have to apply for temporary uplinking permission for live telecast of any programme, show or event including sporting events. This is a tedious exercise involving not just the ministry, but also the Wireless Planning and Coordination (WPC) and Network Operation & Control Centre (NOCC), both of which come under another ministry, the ministry of communications. Anyway, the channels have been taking this procedure in their stride.
Now that the government has accorded high priority to improving India’s ranking in the World Bank’s ‘Ease of Doing Business’ survey, the industry was hopeful that such red tapes would be removed. The hope comes especially from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, which is the regulator for the broadcasting sector.
Ever since TRAI was given this task in 2004, both the ministry and TRAI consult each other on all relevant issues of the sector. In fact, TRAI has established a robust consultation mechanism with active involvement of stakeholders, which has become a cause of envy for other sectors of the Indian economy.
As part of the consultation process, TRAI first released its Pre-Consultation Paper on ‘Ease of Doing Business in Broadcasting Sector’ on April 17, 2017 and a Consultation Paper on July 31, 2017. According to TRAI, the Consultation Paper was initiated as it is of the view that “the attractiveness of business proposition is the prime mover and creates the potential for investments. However, business potential can be further enhanced with better ease of doing business. Therefore, taking a cue from the government’s efforts towards ease of doing business, the Authority has, suo-moto, decided to go for a consultation with the stakeholders on ease of doing business in the broadcasting sector.”
It also conducted an open-house discussion with stakeholders on November 1, 2017, in which TRAI chairman RS Sharma, along with senior officials, also participated. Its recommendations, however, are still awaited.
Meanwhile, without waiting for the TRAI recommendations, the ministry issued an order on December 13, 2017 to make provision of charging processing fees for “change of satellite, channel name/logo, language of channel, category of channel, mode of transmission, teleport, teleport location and category of channel from general entertainment channel to news channel for temporary uplink of a live event”.
It also introduced new categories of channels: regional and national! This is rather surprising because, as per the extant Uplinking and Downlinking Guidelines of 2011, every licencee, whether it is an Assamese language channel or a Marathi one, is a pan-India channel and can be distributed throughout the country. In fact, many broadcasters obtain multi-language permission for their channels to be able to run in multiple language feeds – if the language is the criterion then most of the TV channels are both national as well as regional. The broadcasting sector was obviously confused what to make of this move. In fact, the government-owned Doordarshan’s own regional language channels are distributed throughout the country.
Then came a clarification from the ministry on December 20, 2017 which leads to more intrigue rather than clarity. Obviously, as religious channels mounted pressure, the ministry clarified that the following channels may be treated as ‘Regional’: “(i) All non-Hindi and non-English channels, and (ii) the channels which are imparting only yoga and spiritual discourse shall also be treated as Regional channel for fee purpose only.”
According to the order, for live telecast, a regional channel (which now includes channels showing ‘yoga and spiritual discourse’ programmes) has to pay Rs 50,000 per day per event and a national channel (including GEC and sports channels) has to pay Rs 1 lakh per day per event.
Leave aside the other changes mentioned above, let us compare the ministry’s December 13, 2017 order and the TRAI’s Consultation Paper of July 31, 2017 on ‘Ease of Doing Business in Broadcasting Sector’ with a particular reference to the change of category of a channel from General Entertainment Channel to News Channel for temporary uplink of a live event.
TRAI’s consultation paper did not seek stakeholders’ response on the change of category of a channel from general entertainment channel to news channel for temporary uplink of a live event, but raised the larger question pertaining to the “issue of temporary live uplinking by non-news and current affairs TV channels” and asked stakeholders to provide their replies to the following question:
“Is present framework of seeking permission for temporary uplinking of live coverage of events of national importance including sports events is complicated and restrictive? If yes, what changes do you suggest and why? Give your suggestions with justification.”
All major broadcasters including Zee, Sony, Star and Viacom, in their submitted comments, have expressed the need to do away with the requirement for prior approval for the uplink of the live events. The broadcasters have stated that there already exist a number of laws which are applicable to broadcasters, and any additional temporary permission represents an unnecessary procedural bottleneck, which adds to the uncertainty. They have also recommended that the use of teleport/DSNG vans should be allowed for the uplink of live events, with an intimation to be filed with the I and B ministry.
What is more disconcerting is that on one hand the government is in mission mode to promote sports through its flagship programme, Khelo India, and it has already formed an Olympics task force to start preparing athletes for the next Olympics, in Tokyo in 2020. Sachin Tendulkar, India’s iconic sports star and a member of the Rajya Sabha, wondered, “We rejoice when medals come, we’re happy when we are so carefully planning the development of sports at a macro level. We say we love sports. We’re doing good in so many aspects. But are we focused on getting better?” The latest move of the ministry clearly highlights the lack of focus and coordination on the part of the various arms of the government when it comes to promotion of sports in India.
Who can deny the role played by sports channels in promotion of sports in the country? According to the findings of Chrome Data Analytics and Media, an analytics and strategy firm, which conducted a study in four metropolitan cities in India, titled, ‘Awareness and Consumption of Sports Leagues in India’, showed that 92 percent of the respondents watched sports on TV screen. Television, as a medium, is a key influencer in creating aspirations through role models and popularity of sports in particular could not have reached such levels without the support of television.
The emergence of India in the world of cricket, badminton, boxing, wrestling, tennis, kabaddi and football is not just flash in the pan but the result of the sustained efforts of all stakeholders, including the sports broadcasters, who have invested money and bring latest technologies to package sports as an attractive proposition to the young Indians.
Through this ill-thought-out move of introducing processing fee for live telecasting sporting events the ministry has effectively created a stumbling block for the promotion of sports in India. Doesn’t this send a confusing signal for the promotion of sports in India particularly when the prime minister gives a clarion call to promote sports through Khelo India and an Olympian heads the ministry of youth affairs and sports in addition to being the minister of state for information & broadcasting?
So what could be the plausible reason for this move? Does the ministry assume – although completely wrongly – that when GEC channels live uplink special or sporting events they do not pay a single penny to the government of India? This is due to a lack of communication or coordination between ministries and the absence of consultation with stakeholders as broadcasters pay both WPC and NOCC, for frequency allocation and monitory charges on a per day per event basis!
The net negative impact of this order is that for longer duration tournaments like a cricket series, domestic cricket tournaments, Santosh Trophy, Badminton League, Kabaddi League, I-League Football Tournament and Indian Super League, henceforth the sports broadcasters have to additionally shell out crores of rupees if they have to live telecast any of the event on multiple channels to increase audience reach and engagement.
So let’s finally ask the prime minister whether we should rejoice and appreciate when he wants India to Khelo or despond and lose spirit when the I&B ministry creates hurdles to live telecast national and international sporting events in India? n
(The column appears in the January 31, 2018 issue)
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