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HITS a gain but government mum on FDI hike in 2009

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With India having touched the monumental figure of 512 in terms of television channels including 249 news channels, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry pushed the panic button towards the end of 2009, asking the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) to study how many channels can be permitted in the country.

As a follow-up, the Government has with immediate effect suspended receipt of new applications for permission to uplink television channels from India and downlink channels to India until the regulator submits its report on spectrum availability.

In an order of 18 January, the Ministry said "it has been observed that although improved technologies have resulted in better utilization of the available spectrum and transponder capacities, the spectrum and transponder capacities for satellite TV channels are not unlimited. A need is felt to revisit the present policy for uplinking and downlinking with respect to the approach towards grant of permission including the eligibility criteria and the terms and conditions of the permission."

Early in October 2009, I&B Minister Ambika Soni had written to Trai Chairman J S Sarma to examine issues relating to expansion of private television channels in the country. The Minister asked the Authority to examine ways of checking the financial viability of parties that apply for setting up news channels in the country.

However, Soni on 7 December denied in Parliament that the directive to Trai to examine the status of television channels in the country implied any plans to curb the growth of the sector. She said the study to examine the maximum number of channels that could be telecast was being carried out in view of spectrum constraints.

"The government is surely not going to shut the door on the growth of TV channels in India. But there is a logistic problem and the government has to sort it out. Some of our growth plans may be temporarily upset," says the head of a broadcasting company on request of anonymity.

Meanwhile, the I&B Ministry is also keen that the Broadcast Services Regulation Bill that is pending finalization for about three years should sail through and provide for an independent regulator and a Content Code.

A senior Ministry official told indiantelevision.com that a task force had been set up under the chairmanship of the Secretary in the Ministry, Mr Raghu Menon, and had already held a few internal meetings, The task force - which comprises representatives from the Indian Broadcasting Foundation, the Broadcast Editors Association, and the News Broadcasters Association among others - would now meet stakeholders including consumers, representatives of the print media, civil societies, and editors "to understand their concerns."

"Self-regulation has some limitations," the official added without elaborating, while referring to the Content Code and the Regulatory Body formed by the News Broadcasters Association.

It was expected that this task force would complete its work by March this year. The official said the issues under discussion were not merely content, but also quality of service, carriage fee, service charges and so on. Thus, the entire responsibilities that the independent regulator would have to bear would be finalised.

However, the Cable Operators Federation of India has challenged the constitution of the Task Force on the ground that those sought to be regulated cannot adjudicate on the kind of regulation the government can impose.

Meanwhile, six State Monitoring Committees and 67 District level Committees have been constituted to review and deliberate on the litany of complaints received by authorized officer or take suo motu cognizance of violations transmitted and re-transmitted in the local channels.

Over 130 Advisories/Warnings/Orders were issued to various TV channels for violation of the Programme and Advertising Codes prescribed under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995 and rules framed thereunder.

Interestingly, many of the notices issued during 2009 related to reality shows like Big Boss on Colors, Pati Patni aur woh on NDTV Imagine, and Sach ka Saamna on Star Plus, apart from some for popular series like Bandini on NDTV Imagine and Balika Vadhu and Na aana is des Laado on Colors, and most of the others for the content of commercial advertisements.

A total of 77 private satellite TV channels were permitted to uplink/downlink under the uplinking and downlinking guidelines, taking the number of general entertainment channels to 263. Permission has been given to set up nearly 75 teleports.

In comparison, there were 417 private channels (357 uplinked from India including 197 news channels) and 33 Doordarshan and Parliamentary channels in 2008.

Trai had earlier issued a consultation paper on restructuring of the cable sector, and is understood to be working on a deadline since cable operators have not been responding to the questionnaire placed by it on its website.

After obtaining the Union Cabinet‘s approval to issue policy guidelines for Headend-In-The-Sky (HITS) operators, the guidelines were announced on 26 November 2009. Being a digital delivery mode of distribution, HITS would speed up the process of digitalization of cable services located in non-Cas (conditional access system) areas of the country.

Though the country failed to make much headway in the area of IPTV despite the Ministry having rushed through amendments in the downlinking guidelines for this segment in September 2008, this was attributed to the slow pace of broadband growth and to the strong penetration of cable TV and growth of DTH. IPTV operators also complained that there was very little clarity provided by the government on content issues.

Media companies are hoping that the government will hike FDI (foreign direct investment) limit and come out with more liberal policies in 2010 to fuel the sector‘s growth.

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