Private sports broadcasters seek clarity on 'national interest'

NEW DELHI: How would you define national interest? And, is pubcaster Prasar Bharati trying to boost its revenues in the name of public interest at the cost of private enterprise?

While Prasar Bharati stood its ground on the issue of sharing of feed of any sporting event of national importance (read, cricket) with it by any rights holder, private broadcasters frothed at the mouth maintaining that if this is made mandatory by the government, not only would their business model go for a toss, but it would not be a fair game.

"Properties would get devalued and broadcasters would have to re-evaluate sporting properties that may impact investment in sports," ESPN India MD RC Venkateish openly said.

Doordarshan director-general Navin Kumar, however, felt that any attempt to define `national importance' would be "subjective" and that such an issue should be seen in the overall perspective of the event itself.

"If India is playing Pakistan in cricket, then riot-like situation could arise if maximum number of people are unable to watch the match? and this event could be called of national importance," Kumar said, making it amply clear that exclusivity is a word not favoured by DD or the government and that DD's terrestrial reach is still to be matched by others.

Kumar, along with other panelists were speaking at a seminar on "Sports Broadcasting & Content Sharing: A Reality Check" organized by the Confederation of Indian Industry, which was moderated by School of Convergence director Paranjoy Guha Thakurta. In short, the discussion revolved around a proposed legislation making TV feeds of listed sporting events being made available to terrestrial broadcaster, DD, irrespective of who holds the telecast rights.

Venkateish and Zee Sports CEO Gary Lovejoy were quick to rebut assertions made by Kumar pointing out issues like `national importance' and `public interest' should be debated thoroughly before any piece of legislation is enacted.

"Suddenly making a list (of sporting events) would be totally unfair," Lovejoy said, adding that the UK, for example, has a list of protected sports (drawn up in 1956), but it had been given final shape after great deal of consultation with the private sector.

Pointing out that latest NRS figures of 61 million cable and satellite homes highlight increasing penetration of cable TV, Venkateish said, "It wouldn't be right to say that access (to sports) is denied (to a large section of population)."

But Kumar stuck to his guns saying that 'reach' was an issue and in the name of commercial interest, a sizable portion of the population could not be excluded from viewing what is considered important for them. Incidentally, a major portion of DD's revenues come from telecasting cricket matches and the next biggest grosser are the Hindi feature films aired on DD National and various regional channels of the national broadcaster.

Recently, when the I&B ministry went to the Cabinet with a proposal relating to DD and sports events, there was no unanimity on the issue and the matter was referred to a yet-to-be-formed group of ministers (GoM) to study the "must provide clause" for broadcasters who will have to share content of sporting events of national importance with the public service broadcaster.

That the issue is not so simple could be gauged from the fact that though DD's Kumar reiterated on creating a win-win situation for all parties concerned through such a mandate --- joint marketing of events was one instance cited by him --- Venkateish finally admitted that such an arrangement would "upset the business model" of private broadcasters as subscription revenue would get impacted.

What was surprising that though DD made a strong case for such a law to be in place, quoting examples of the UK and Australia, it admitted that it would not be in a position to go out and bid for sporting rights outside India, especially cricket.

Kumar also took a swipe at the bidding process of the Indian domestic cricket last year --- since then declared null and void by the court --- indicating that Zee Telefilms' bid of $ 308 million was "artificially high" and "unsustainable," which attracted a counter-attack from Zee.

"It's not correct for DD to dictate how Zee should conduct its business," Lovejoy sarcastically shot back, making it clear that DD wants to have its cake and eat it too, while the money is paid by some private broadcaster.

The issue needs to be debated more intensely and extensively, most private broadcasters agreed, as this has commercial and legal ramifications on private broadcasters. Still, they insisted that it would be better if the broadcast industry, DD included, sorts out this issue amongst themselves without government interference.

For the record, in Australia, a public broadcaster has to bid for major sporting events deemed important for mass viewers. If any private broadcaster wins the rights it works out a content sharing arrangement with the public broadcaster on the basis of market value, reach and commercial viability of the event. Japan, Brazil, New Zealand, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Argentina and Mexico have no such 'must-provide' norm.

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