Former I&B Secretary proposes fresh study into ad cap

NEW DELHI: It's been a month and more since former Information & Broadcasting secretary Uday Kumar Varma relinquished his post to Bimal Jhulka. But you can't get broadcasting  out of Varma's blood. After all he and his team in the I&B almost single handedly forced a fragmented cable TV sector and a disbelieving television ecosystem to follow the government mandate for digitsation.  

Now the former secretary has proposed that with the onset of digitisation, it is  possible for the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to get all the data needed for a fresh look at the 12 minute ad cap which the regulator had mandated earlier this year.

Uday Kumar Varma

Speaking exclusively to Varma said  that the Telecom Disputes Settlement & Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) has stayed the implementation  of the ad cap on news channels, and the TRAI should use this time to conduct a study on how much time is being devoted to advertising by the various television channels and determine how much can and should actually be devoted by them.  He stated that the regulator should be able to complete a thorough study in two or three months.

Varma said that while the ad cap was sought to be enforced in view of the provisions of the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995, the situation had changed considerably since with a much larger number of television channels than previously anticipated.

He felt the 12-minute ad cap was in any case arbitrary as it was based on the experiences in other countries rather than in the Indian context.

He agreed that there were some channels - particularly regional language ones - which aired up to 30 minute per hour of ads, but pointed out that the new regime under digitisation afforded TRAI the freedom to study the issue afresh.

He said a method had to be found to enforce whatever ad cap is decided upon finally, since many channels are not members of either the News Broadcasters Association or the Indian Broadcasting Foundation. Even otherwise, he said all broadcasters were not on the same page on this issue.

Asked about the demand that the ad cap be put off to December 2014 by when the entire country would have gone digital, Varma declined to comment as he said the matter was before the TDSAT.

Merger of Phase III and IV of DAS

On the topic of the merger of Phase III and IV of the digitisation process, Varma said it had been found this would work better since towns and rural areas in these two phases come under the jurisdiction of district collectors, and management would be easier.

The merger would also give more time to stakeholders to put their infrastructure in place.

Analogue Switch-off Justified

Meanwhile, Varma said he stood by the decision to switch off analogue transmissions when resorting to digital addressable systems.

He further added that permitting the co-existence of  both analogue and DAS, as had been done in the United States or the United Kingdom, would have led to a ‘warped policy’ in a country like ours.

Digitisation should be seen as a means to make the broadcasting sector more transparent and give a better choice and viewing experience to the consumer, he said, adding that it  had also led to greater investments from India and overseas.

The very fact that subscribers, who have switched over to DAS were not complaining and there were many others opting for the new system, meant the average Indian had become more conscious of what they were watching on TV.

Affordability is not a major issue as those who have not yet bought digital set top boxes ‘will do so without being coerced’ once they see the advantages in terms of quality of picture, services, and value added services that may follow.

Varma felt the method of collection and sharing of subscription fees too is undergoing a major change, and the consumer will be able to see the benefits of this. Furthermore, carriage fees charged by cable TV operators and MSOs had also come down and this would be reflected in the fee they charge subscribers.

Varma believes that even the rural TV viewer will be in a position to partake of the fruits of cable TV digitisation. He pointed out that fatter wallet subscribers in metros and cities who will be paying  for value-added services and other benefits  will, in a sense, subsidise the rural consumer who is not so rich.

As the adage goes, take from the rich to feed the poor. Even in television!

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