Television

Regulator must: industry to I&B minister RS Prasad

NEW DELHI: The reason of an existing `great divide’ amongst stakeholders of the broadcast and cable industry - that the government uses to continue playing the role of an arbiter and wield control - came to the fore today at a seminar here. And, predictably, the Indian government used the same excuse again to justify that market forces alone cannot be left to take care of the needs of a sector that is exploding with possibilities.

Stressing the need for having an independent regulator for the broadcasting sector, information and broadcasting (I&B) minister Ravi Shankar Prasad today gave it back to the industry, which harped on market forces taking care of things, by saying, "To say that market forces would take care of everything is too simplistic."

Speaking at a roundtable on "The need and role of an independent regulator for the TV broadcasting sector", organised here today by Ficci under Frames-2004 Knowledge Series, the minister justified government interference, saying that the government can’t sit back when the "consumer interests are (getting) impinged."

Prasad also took a dig at fellow politicians when he remarked that the need for a regulatory body has been stressed by the fast changing technology, which is overtaking "reactive policies" and there is case for visualising the broadcasting scene 10 years hence.

Those present at today’s roundtable included The India Today group’s Aroon Purie; TV Today Network CEO G. Krishnan; Nimbus CEO Akash Khurana; Sahara TV president Mahesh Prasad; Discovery India MD Deepak Shourie; Moving Pictures’ Ramesh Sharma; Turner International India country head Anshuman Misra; cable operators Roop Sharma, Rakesh Dutta and Vickky Chowdhry; BBC World’s resident director in India Vinod Bakshi; Reliance Entertainment chairman Amit Khanna; law firm Amarchand Mangaldas’ managing partner Shardul Shroff; I&B ministry secretary Pawan Chopra; DD officials and Ficci representatives, amongst others.

Surprisingly, the big three pay broadcasters - Star, Sony and Zee - went unrepresented at the roundtable or nobody senior had been sent from these organisations, it seems. Also missing were some of the south Indian channels like Sun TV and Eenadu.

Meanwhile, Prasad pointed out the "great divide among the various stakeholders like broadcasters, multi-system operators (MSOs) and the cable operators" was brought out clearly by the conditional access system (CAS) experience and such instances further strengthen the case for a regulator.

Another reason for a regulator, Prasad said is necessitated by the type of content put out by private TV channels about which various sections of the society, including members of Parliament and the National Women’s Commission, have complained.

"The portrayal of women on our channels has been severely criticised. Now, when people come to me with complaints, what do I do?" Prasad shot back, adding that his continued appeal for self-regulation has fallen on deaf ears.

Offending and surrogate ads on television, the minister said, keep popping up on other channels every time the government cracks the whip on a particular channel. "Now, is it the government’s duty to sit and continue monitoring such ads that have been served notice once? My plea for self-regulation has not had the desired effect," Prasad regretted.

However, Prasad refrained from making any commitments on a regulatory body and said the government would come to a conclusion in this regard after considering all aspects, including the relevance of the Communications Convergence Bill in the wake of CAS (conditional access system), DTH (Direct to Home) and uplinking experiences and also international practices.

BROAD CONSENSUS ON A REGULATOR

In whatever form one can call it, a regulator or a commission, the overall consensus at the roundtable was on the immediate need for an independent regulatory body that would take care of the issues specifically related to the broadcasting sector.

Of all the people who spoke during the interactive session TV Today’s Krishnan made some valid points when he said that content should not be regulated in any form, even by the proposed regulatory authority which, he indicated, would be better off if named a `commission’.

"Let the consumer decide what he wants to watch or not. If he wants to watch adult fare, let him watch it as a pay channel and pay for it," Krishnan said, adding the role of a regulatory body should be compliance of rules and not over-policing.

Making a case for a level playing field for domestic media companies too, Krishnan suggested that if the government wants foreign-owned channels or those uplinking from outside India to adhere to local laws, then it should have a downlinking licence fee too.

Cable Network Association’s Rakesh Dutta made a case for the cable operators getting arm-twisted by broadcasters in an act that clearly brought out the fact that various stakeholders of the industry were divided and seldom can agree on any issue.

According to Discovery's Shourie, various intra-industry relationships and agreements, like that between an MSO and the broadcaster and MSO and a cable op, for example, should be left to the market forces and cannot have a standardised format because of the dynamics of the industry.

Purie felt that distribution margins, for instance, couldn’t be calculated on a cost plus basis, as somebody had suggested, because different genres of programming tote up different costs.

Film and TV producer Ramesh Sharma felt that Prasar Bharati should also be brought under the ambit of the proposed regulatory authority.

Earlier, Shardull Shroff made a presentation on the need for a broadcast regulator in India outlining the industry perspectives and international practices.

According to Shroff, the industry perspective was to expedite establishment of the Convergence Commission and any interim regulator would only be a patchwork solution.

Dwelling on the internationally recognised functions of a broadcast regulator, Shroff said in his presentation that these should include frequency allocation, issue and renewal of broadcast licence, dispute resolution and determination of the licence conditions.

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