TDSAT interim order ensures continuity for private channels on FreeDish

NEW DELHI: Private TV channels on Doordarshan’s FreeDish with expired licences have been informed by the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Arbitration Tribunal (TDSAT) that they can continue airing until further orders. This applies to even those whose licences are soon to expire.

Channels can continue on a pro rata basis taking the bid with which they had won the slots or the reserve price, whichever is higher, as benchmark. This can continue till the government formulates a new policy within two months.

TDSAT chairman justice Shiva Keerti Singh, and members B B Srivasatava and A K Bhargava gave three days to any other channels similarly affected to take advantage of this interim order by informing the tribunal.

While admitting all the petitions before it, the tribunal asked the government to file its reply within four weeks.

Earlier in the morning, the government through counsel Rajeev Sharma presented a letter sent to Cinema 24x7 which laid down a new formula aiming at bringing the pricing at par with the system followed for FM channel auctions which also provides for revenue sharing.

Sharma said that Prasar Bharati was in the process of reorienting its content to live up to its credo of public service broadcasting and had therefore sought a time of two months. However, channels whose licences will expire this month or in February next year can continue by paying the highest bid amount and by sharing its revenue with the pubcaster. However, counsel for the private channels rejected this as discriminatory.

Counsel Aman Lekhi who represented Cinema 24x7 said the government could not bring an interim policy which was not relatable to something that law recognises. He said this would also amount to creating two classes of TV channels: those who were on a pro rata basis and those who were being forced to pay an amount that was higher than the amount for which they had successful bid for the channels. There was no guarantee that the government will not revert to the existing prices after the two-month exercise was over.

He added that the ad hoc exercise was even unnecessary since the government is in contemplation. Such a measure doesn’t give certainty or continuity and alterations have to be by ‘sound consideration’. In fact, he stated that even Prasar Bharati was unaware why the auction was called off by the Minister of Information and Broadcasting Smriti Irani.

Senior advocate Ramji Srinivasan added that it was clear that DD was eager to continue with the auctions but the ministry had arbitrarily stopped them. He also said that ‘continuity’ implied continuing with the existing policy and not imposing something completely new.

He said equating general entertainment channels with news channels was sheer arbitrariness. This may result in closing the channels and shutting doors to people.

Assistant solicitor general Tushar Mehta added that the aim of the government had been to balance equations on both sides. He said that in the FM auctions, the channels shared revenue of fifty per cent apart from the bid amount in the e-auctions and so the same policy was sought to be extended to the TV channels on FreeDish.

Apart from Cinema 24x7 which runs Wow Cinema and News Nation, others who joined the fray today included Enterr 10 TV Pvt Ltd., B4U Broadband India Pvt Ltd, and Independent News Service Pvt Ltd.

The letter sent by a senior executive of Doordarshan said that Doordarshan “can as an interim measure follow a model on the pattern of FM auction policy of the government for two months or till the centralgovernment policy is made, whichever is earlier for the channels which are going to be off the air on completion of their contract period” and they may “be offered continuity of operation at the highest bid amount for any of the channels auctioned in the past, together with revenue sharing at the rate of 50 per cent of the gross profit or 4 per cent of the gross revenue  or  2.5 per cent of upfront highest bid amount whichever is higher. This system, as an interim arrangement should be operated on first come first served basis if the terms and conditions of the short duration extension are acceptable to the existing  contract holder.”

The letter noted that FreeDish has witnessed a significant growth spurt in free to air (FTA) channels in  2015-2016 and the popular FTA channels spanning general entertainment, movies and music have targeted core TV audiences and according to estimates reported in the media to have earned Rs 5 to 7 billion. Keeping so many vacant slots will not only affect revenue from one of Doordarshan’s largest sources but will also force people to shift to other expensive options.

Soon after Smriti Irani became the Minister of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) few months back, the decision of halting the bids for FreeDish slot was announced. This came at a time when FreeDish was testing its MPEG4 technology in an attempt to encrypt the platform and also expand the number of TV channels that could be carried. At present 80 channels are carried on the FTA DTH platform. 

Also Read:

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10 FreeDish slots may fall vacant by Oct-end as renewals hang fire

TDSAT gives Prasar Bharati 2 days to respond to FreeDish auction suspension

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