Regulators

I&B Ministry-bashing unwarranted, says NDTV’s Narayan Rao

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MUMBAI:  For the past one and a half years, India has been undergoing stomach churning change in the television industry thanks to the government mandated rollout of digitisation. With the due date to complete digitisation nationwide getting closer (31 December), much needs to be done. Now, with a new government in place and new Information and Broadcasting (I&B) Minister Prakash Javadekar assuring the industry that digitisation will be implemented, expectations are only rising.

The recent CII meeting that took place with Javadekar saw industry stalwarts express their woes and wish-lists to the minister. They also expressed their displeasure at the inefficiency of the I&B bureaucracy.

I&B joint secretary of broadcasting Supriya Sahu and I&B secretary Bimal Julka were targets of accusations of delays in clearances and permissions.

Some other industry leaders - while appreciating the fact that the I&B Ministry  pushed through DAS, whereas CAS in 2006-2007 just fell through -  have lambasted even the TRAI - along with the I&B Ministry - at industry  gatherings over the past six months for not moving fast and determinedly enough on many issues that have impacted their businesses.

 NDTV vice chairperson and News Broadcasters Association president KVL Narayan Rao thinks that industry needs to keep a cool head and not resort to bureaucracy bashing. Narayan Rao has nearly 30 years work experience; half of that was spent in the bureaucracy with the Indian Revenue Service (1979-1994); the other half has been with the news network NDTV.

Says he: “I think the attack on the bureaucracy, particularly that on the I&B Ministry, was quite unfair. We currently have some highly efficient officials at the I&B Ministry who have shown a lot of understanding of our issues and have tried to do all they can to solve them. Supriya Sahu and Bimal Julka come immediately to mind."

At the CASBAA India 2014 conference in New Delhi earlier this year, Sahu made a detailed presentation on the progress and benefits of digitisation stating that only 10 broadcasters had shared data with the Ministry. She appealed to other broadcasters to share revenue data with them so that the government could ascertain whether the digitisation dividend was really coming the way of industry.

If one harks back to 2012 almost everyone was cynical that the government mandated digital addressable system (DAS) rollout would ever become a reality. Almost everyone scoffed at even the suggestion. But it was a determined ministerial secretariat led by the then secretary Uday Kumar Varma and his team which consisted of Supriya Sahu and her directors Reijemon who pushed it through - along with the TRAI. Julka who replaced Varma has been following the same narrow strait.

Hence Rao feels that constant hurling of barbs at ministry officials is unpalatable. Says he:  “Please remember that this is virtually the same lot of officials who ensured the implementation of the first two phases of digitisation which isn’t an easy task at all, who also issued the notification on ratings agencies, a long pending demand of the industry, and issued over 400 permissions for channels and who have allowed self/independent regulation to prevail. Yes there have been delays now and then but how much of that can be attributed to the bureaucrats is debatable."

Indeed, several initiatives were taken by the I&B mandarins. Officials regularly met (at one time it was almost weekly) with industry executives - whether from broadcasting, MSOs, or LCOs - to asses digitisation’s progress. The security clearance check that directors of various channels were subject to – which pained many a broadcaster – came at the behest of the Ministry of Home Affairs.

When a large grouping from the broadcasting industry  rose against the only TV ratings agency TAM, it was the I&B Ministry that took note of it and came up with policy guidelines for TV viewership monitoring. It was the Ministry which also pushed the institution of Broadcasting Audience Research Council, which the industry had kept in cold storage for almost half a decade.

After the Saradha chit fund scam, the Ministry quickly stepped in and did a check of the shareholding pattern of various channels to prevent repeats of a similar nature.

When TRAI came out with the 10+2 ad cap regulation, the Ministry supported the broadcasters’ view in keeping it at bay till digitisation pans out, though nothing concrete has come out of it as yet.

Additionally, while the Ministry did use the stick, it also doled out carrots by extending DAS deadlines on more than a few occasions – keeping in mind the realities on the ground - to give it a reasonable chance at success. Despite the long rope extended by both TRAI and the I&B Ministry, industry at the cable TV and MSO level has yet to begun physical billing for DAS subscribers even in some phase I cities. Forget about phase II.

Says a media observer: “Agreed for the last three or four months of the UPA regime the Ministry’s focus was on the election; industry issues were not a high priority. It was not a fault of the civil servants alone; the Ministry itself and the government on the whole could not move, thanks to the losses in the New Delhi state elections, and the stigma of corruption which kept hitting the Congress I in its face. I can understand some sections of the industry getting edgy, nervous and agitated for many a broadcaster’s, DTH operator’s business plans are linked to digitisation’s success and the fact that bureaucrats and ministries don’t throw a spanner in the works.”

She adds: “But we have to remember we have a new government led by Narendra Kumar Modi who has a lot more freedom than the previous regime. There’s a lot of positivity around, even though there are economic challenges on hand. The industry should look ahead, and not back. Things can only get better, and with experienced officials in the Ministry at helm, it will be easier to push through things. New ones could end up taking longer as they will have to come to grips with the sector – and that takes time.”

That’s a piece of advice which the irate members of the industry can ponder upon.

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