Television

The TRAI, TDSAT and the ad cap story: Waiting for Godot?

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So everyone has bought themselves some more time. The Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) decided to postpone till 11 November the date of hearing for the 10+2 ad cap case filed by the News Broadcasters Association (NBA), music channels as well as the regional channels on grounds of lack of information. The extra fortnight gave it more days to ruminate over what has clearly proved to be a major thorn in almost everyone’s side whether it is the government or broadcasters or agencies or advertisers.

The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) started it all when under the quality of services rules it decided to force broadcasters to limit commercial air time to 12 minutes per hour a year or so ago. The decision was postponed and rolled over until mid-2013 when it decided enough is enough and passed an order which would see general entertainment channels first reduce advertising airtime to 16 minutes per hour, while the news channels were to cut it down to 20 minutes per hour from 1 July till 30 September. Following this, the GECs from 1 October had to reduce the advertising airtime to 12 minutes per hour and the news channels to 16 minutes per hour.

The decision was postponed and rolled over until mid-2013 when it decided enough is enough and passed an order which would see general entertainment channels first reduce advertising airtime to 16 minutes per hour, while the news channels were to cut it down to 20 minutes per hour from 1 July till 30 September.

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Broadcasters - especially the news one - saw red instantly and screamed as if their life was being squeezed out of them. They obviously did not think about the viewer who was at times being inundated with almost 30 minutes or more of ads on TV to watch news. They went ahead and appealed to the TDSAT that what was being called for was draconian and unacceptable. Their claim that news could not have fixed time duration such as TV shows and hence such a restrictive law would sound the death knell for them. However, syncing it with the completion of digitisation was that found favour with them.

The GECs seemed unperturbed and said that they were all right with the TRAI diktat and announced that they would compensate the inventory reduction by raising per 10 second rates by 20-30 per cent. They seemed a very united bunch until one day the management at Multi Screen Media (Sony) woke up and said it would walk its own path and not reduce air time. The music channels too followed and filed an appeal with TDSAT.

In the meanwhile, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry too got into the act with minister Manish Tewari stating categorically that the reduction of air time should happen as digitisation gets completed by December 2014, giving the broadcasters some much needed support. The mandarins at Shastri Bhawan were asked to evaluate how the reduction of air time would impact the TV channels.

Advertisers and agencies sucked in their collective breaths and protested as loudly as they could that the broadcast industry was unilaterally trying to raise rates without any rationale despite having contracts in place and that they would not allow that.

The noise continued for weeks until the hearing date came up on 31 October morning. Everyone was expecting that the TDSAT would be supportive and would rule in favour of the broadcasters. Hence, the postponement of the hearing was quite anti-climactic, though many expected it to follow that course..

The GECs seemed unperturbed and said that they were all right with the TRAI diktat and announced that they would compensate the inventory reduction by raising per 10 second rates by 20-30 per cent.

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The argument that the NBA needs more time seems a little specious, but it worked with the TDSAT. They were anyway slated to be heard on 11 November itself but their case got advanced as the number of cases went up, so for them it is back to base one.

The networks - Star India, Zee TV, and Viacom18 (who had earlier stated that they would toe the TRAI line) now filed an intervention with the tribunal but have been asked to come back with a separate case.

Now what after 11 November? What are the various scenarios that could play out? One, the TDSAT will turn down the appeal and tell everyone to obey the TRAI. Right now and pronto!. Two, it could postpone the hearing further, thus giving everyone more time. Third, it could decide that the reduction of air time is a good move but needs more time to be implemented. Fourth, broadcasters, advertisers and agencies could file further cases and a decision could well be put in abeyance until all the cases get sorted. The TDSAT on its part could give a ruling in one case and say that it is applicable to others, but that does not look feasible because each television channel genre has its own set of challenges.

The question on everyone's minds is whether it would give rope till 2014 December. This is something that can be debated and be seen as wishful thinking. But who knows the TDSAT may well end up playing the fairy godmother.

Now, let’s say the TDSAT rules against the broadcasters, it is quite likely that they will head to the higher courts. And knowing Indian courts, it won’t be easy to reach a quick decision. Industry experts expect the air time cap to take its own course and time. That it will happen is a given, but predicting how soon is like attempting to play Russian roulette. Welcome to the world of television which has become more of a gamble in recent times.

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