Regulators

TRAI attempts to rein in TV channel aggregators in new consultation paper

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NEW DELHI: It has been saying it will bring some order to the TV channel aggregation and distribution business. And the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is now showing that it means what it has been saying.

It today issued a consultation paper attempting to regulate the distribution of television channels from broadcaster to platform operators and discipline the distributors (aggregators). The paper involves amendments to the Tariff and Interconnection orders, and Register of Interconnect Regulations, and so TRAI has given stakeholders time till 27 August to send in their comments.

The essence of these is that it wants to clip the immense clout that the four main aggregators MediaPro Enterprises (distributes 75 channels), IndiaCast UTV Media Distribution (distributes 35 channels), Sun Distribution Services and MSM Discovery (distributeing 30 channels each) have on the TV ecosystem in India.

The main points of the consultation paper are that:

* Broadcasters and not the authorised distribution agency shall publish the reference interconnect offers (RIO) and enter into interconnection agreements with the distribution platform operators.

* If a broadcaster appoints a person as its distribution agent, it shall ensure that -

a) The authorised distribution agent does not change the composition of the bouquet formed by the broadcaster while providing it to the distributors of TV channels.

b) The authorised distribution agent does not bundle bouquet or channels of the broadcasters with the bouquet or channels of other broadcasters. In other words, in case the authorised distribution agency represents more than one broadcaster, they shall not link offerings of broadcasters they represent.

c) While acting as an authorised distribution agent, such person acts for, on behalf and in the name of the broadcaster.

The regulator has also proposed that it will give broadcasters three months to rework the RIOs and to enter into fresh interconnect agreements and filing the same with it.

Based on the above, it has issued several orders under which it has chosen to amend earlier orders issued by it.

These include:

* The Telecommunication (Broadcasting & Cable) Services (Fourth) (Addressable Systems) Tariff (Third Amendment) Order 2013 to amend The Telecommunication (Broadcasting & Cable) Services (Fourth) (Addressable Systems) Tariff Order 2010 (1 of 2010)

* The Telecommunication (Broadcasting & Cable) Services (Second) Tariff (Tenth Amendment) Order 2013 to amend The Telecommunication (Broadcasting & Cable) Services (Second) Tariff Order 2004 (6 of 2004)

* The Telecommunication (Broadcasting & Cable Services) Interconnection (Seventh Amendment) Regulations 2013 to amend The Telecommunication (Broadcasting & Cable Services) Interconnection Regulation 2004 (13 of 2004).

* The Telecommunication (Broadcasting & Cable Services) Interconnection (Digital Addressable Cable Television Systems) (Second Amendment) Regulations 2013 to amend The Telecommunication (Broadcasting & Cable Services) Interconnection (Digital Addressable Cable Television Systems) Regulations 2012 (9 of 2012).

* The Register of Interconnect Agreements (Broadcasting & Cable Services) (Fifth Amendment) Regulations 2013 to amend The Register of Interconnect Agreements (Broadcasting & Cable Services) Regulation 2004 (15 of 2004)

Background to TRAI?s attempt to regulate Aggregators

In the paper, the TRAI says that broadcasters, MSOs, cable operators, DTH, HITS and IPTV operators are recognised as entities in the policy guidelines and regulatory framework of the Ministry and TRAI respectively. Aggregators have not been specifically defined anywhere; neither in the law or the statutory rules, nor in the regulatory framework for the broadcasting and cable TV services sector.

As on date there are around 233 pay channels (including HD and advertisement-free channels) offered by 59 pay broadcasters. These channels are distributed by 30 broadcasters/aggregators/ agents of broadcasters.

In the broadcasting and cable TV sector, TV channels are distributed by the broadcasters themselves or through their authorised distribution agencies to the distribution platforms viz cable TV, DTH, IPTV, HITS etc. Many such agencies operate as authorised agents (aggregators) for more than one broadcaster. After obtaining the distribution rights from one or more broadcasters, such distribution agencies form bouquets, many of which also consist of channels of one or more broadcasters. They publish Reference Interconnect Offers (RIOs), negotiate the rates for these bouquets/channels with operators of various distribution platforms and enter into interconnection agreement(s) with them.

As on date, the distribution business of around 73 per cent of the total pay TV market, including high definition (HD) TV channels, is controlled by a few authorised distribution agencies. These channels include almost all the popular pay TV channels. These authorised distribution agencies wield substantial negotiating power which can be, and is, often misused leading to several market distortions.

Explaining its move, TRAI said the business of distribution of TV channels from the broadcaster to the consumer has two levels:

i) Bulk or wholesale level - wherein the distribution platform operator obtains the TV channels from the broadcasters, and ii) Retail level - where the distribution platform operator offers these channels to the consumers, either directly or through the last mile operator.

Even as TRAI was in the process of reviewing the regulatory framework for broadcasters and their authorised agencies, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry said there have been several complaints from Multi system operators (MSOs) about the modus operandi of such entities, e.g. it has been highlighted that MSOs are forced to subscribe to certain packages. Concerns have been vehemently voiced by various MSOs and LCOs regarding the monopolistic practices of such major authorised distribution agencies of broadcasters, in view of their control over a large number of popular channels.

The MSOs have complained that the aggregators have abused their market power by forcing them to accept all the channels of the aggregator, fixed fee deals, charging based on the entire subscriber base and not as per actual uptake of channels, insisting on minimum guarantee and other unreasonable terms and conditions.

The TRAI further adds, in the consultation paper, that in the absence of any regulatory framework for the aggregators (including possible restrictions on the authorised agencies), they started to bundle channels of more than one broadcaster and form bouquets. These bouquets, having popular channels of a number of broadcasters, provided a better marketing proposition. These bouquets grew larger and larger with time, as the aggregator started to piggy back more and more channels, especially those having lesser standalone market values.

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