A soap called I&B

Conditional access system (CAS), new uplinking norms for the TV news channels, KU-band direct-to-home (DTH) television service finally on the horizon - it has been action time for the information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry, of late. But how successful has been the government in giving shape to policy decisions?

On the occasion of the more than 17-party coalition federal government completing four years in office on 13 October, takes a look at the performance of the I&B ministry over the last 12 months.

The I&B ministry is the nodal ministry for the information, broadcasting and entertainment (including films) sectors. The functions of the three sectors, the government feels, are complementary to each other and cannot be strictly compartmentalised.

In the last five years, the rapid advances being made globally in the entertainment and broadcasting sectors and a series of bold policy initiatives have transformed the role of the ministry from an information disseminator to a facilitator of economic growth.

"People blame me for a lot of things including the CAS fiasco, but one must appreciate that I have inherited many things in a legacy"

I&B minister Ravi Shankar Prasad‘s these quotes may just become his famous last words!

Up-linking policy

Till recently, the policy permitted all TV channels, irrespective of ownership equity structure or management control, to uplink from India.

Taking advantage of this policy, the I&B ministry insists, 92 channels have received permission for uplinking from India. In addition, India is envisaged to become an up-linking hub. For this purpose, 49 per cent foreign equity has been permitted in Indian companies setting up teleports. A total of 23 teleports have been approved already.

However, the review of the uplinking policy, which now stipulates that in news channels desirous of uplinking from India, foreign investment would be limited up to 26 per cent only, created more controversies than anticipated.

Allegation flew thick that the government had succumbed to the pressures from domestic media companies like Zee, Sahara, Aaj Tak and others, still reeling under the onslaught of the success story spun by Star India few years ago riding piggyback the hugely popular Kaun Banega Crorepati (KBC)

game show on Star Plus.

The uplinking policy was further revised earlier this year to ensure that at least one single Indian entity owns 51 per cent of equity and editorial and managerial control remain in the hands of Indians only. This again was seen as owing to the wishes of the Indian media industry, which also hurriedly came under an umbrella organisation called the Indian Media Group to lobby for a level-playing field.

Star India, of course, hit back saying that channels like Zee News, Sahara Samay and Aaj Tak were afraid of the tough competition that Star News was giving.

To be fair to the government, and the I&B minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, every country has the right to frame rules and regulations to suit its local needs and sensitivities - in this connection India cannot be termed something unique.

What could have been avoided by the government is the unsavory atmosphere leading up to the policy change and the subsequent letter work between the government and Star India, questioning its role in Media Content and Communications Services (MCCS).

India‘s first DTH

It took over two years for the government to finally issue a license for a KU-band DTH service in India, and the first off the block, shortcomings notwithstanding, was the Subhash Chandra-controlled ASC Enterprise that has put together a platform in association with another Chandra company Zee


Though the government opened up DTH transmission service in the KU-band field over two years ago, the cumbersome procedures, which raise the usual bogey of national security, not only delayed action in this segment, but also dipped the appetite to invest. However, India‘s pubcaster Doordarshan (DD) is also slated to launch a DTH service to reach the rural, mountainous and inaccessible areas.

Cable TV regulation/CAS fiasco

In the third year in office, if one is asked to name the biggest flop show of the year produced by the government, then that answer would undoubtedly be CAS.

With an aim to bring transparency in the cable distribution system and to protect the TV consumers from frequent and arbitrary hikes in cable subscription, the Cable Act was amended to introduce CAS for pay channels. CAS would also give consumers the choice to pay for only those pay channels they wish to view.

CAS demanded that a set-top box be installed at the consumer‘s place. No box was required for receiving free to air channels, however.

However, the political and industry circus that followed the government announcement to bring about addressability could have itself made a chart-topping high TRP attracting soap opera. The twist and turns still continue with Chennai hiccuping with CAS rollout and the Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata subscribers sitting in an environment of pretty confusion.

Industry status to entertainment sector

One of the major policy initiatives that was meant to revolutionise the film production in the country has been the granting of the ‘Industry Status‘ to the entertainment sector that includes the film-making segment.

Institutional finance and other facilities are now available to the sector. The Industrial Development Bank of India (IDBI) and the commercial banks have already started financing film and other entertainment projects. These banks sanctioned assistance worth over Rs 5,600 million, the government has

said, but a general apprehension about the film industry still continues in the organised financial world.

But a laudable step is that it gives fillip to availability of clean credit for new projects.

Encouraging exports

Thanks to the govt‘s active encouragement in exporting entertainment products, films like ‘Lagaan‘ have made to the Oscars

The government in recent times has actively encouraged export of Indian entertainment products, including films, music and animation capability.

Apart from participation in film festivals and markets abroad, a partnership with the industry has been established through FICCI and CII, which will help make inroads into the global market.

In the past five years, besides the increase in export revenue from Rs 2,500 million to over Rs 9,000 million, there has been recognition of Indian films at Cannes, Locarno and in other parts of the world and also nominations for films like Lagaan for Oscar Awards. To further add some business zing to the story, a memorandum of understanding (MoU) has been signed with Italy for co-production and co-distribution of films. Similar MOUs/agreements are being pursued with France, Canada, UK and other countries.

Radio broadcasting on the rise

In order to diversify radio services and provide choice in entertainment to the people, FM broadcasting has been opened up for the private broadcasters, according to the government.

Five private FM channels at Mumbai and one each at Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Lucknow, Pune, Vishakapatnam, Coimbatore, Trivananthapuram and Indore have been operationalised. The private FM services in Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata have also been on air.

But in between the first and the yet-to-start second phase, the private FM players realized that in their enthusiasm to outbid competition, too much of money had been sunk into license fee and such things. The usual wailing from the industry has led the government to set up a task force to look into the radio broadcast policy and the steps needed to be taken to streamline things for the future.

The second phase is likely to be taken up after April next year and the task force on radio broadcast policy will submit its recommendations later this month. The task force would assess the functioning of the Phase I of FM radio privatisation and suggest steps to improve the system in the second phase, including the possibility of allowing news and current affairs on private FM radio channels.

It still needs to be seen whether the government accepts all

the recommendations of the task force for implementation or does it selectively to retain certain control.

All India Radio (AIR), in the meantime, launched its second FM channel providing both news and entertainment content.

Upgrading Prasar Bharati

A special package of Rs 4,300 million for improvement of AIR/DD infrastructure in Jammu & Kashmir has been implemented. Another package for improvement of the AIR/DD infrastructure in the northeast region (including Sikkim and Island territories) is being implemented during the tenth Five-Year Plan. In the northeast, a scheme for establishment of 160 cable head-ends in select villages has been taken up.

Critics, however, lament that sinking such huge amount of money in the organisation is futile as AIR and DD, put together, are so huge that its size has slowed it down.

New(s) channels on DD

Today, DD has 24-hours channels in Gujarati, Bangla, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, Punjabi and Oriya

Twenty-four hours satellite channels have been launched in Gujarati, Bangla, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Marathi, Malayalam, Punjabi and Oriya by the DD.

But what is making more news is the relaunch of the 24-hour news channel expected next month, by converting the broadcaster‘s entertainment channel DD Metro into DD News.

The justification for this is that it would provide around-the-clock news and current affairs information to the people on the terrestrial channel and extend the service to rural and other areas, which are not covered by cable services.

Still, the skeptics firmly believe that taxpayers‘ money is being used to experiment with a news channel at a time when elections are round the corner.

FDI in print

A review of the policy on allowing foreign investment in the print media was carried out and effected last year. Publication of Indian editions of foreign scientific, technical, specialty journals on a case-by-case basis has been allowed aFDI of up to 74 per cent. As for Indian entities publishing newspapers/periodicals dealing with news and current affairs, FDI of up to 26 per cent has also been allowed on a case-by-case basis.

But till now very few main-line proposals have come. The big ones being Hindustan Times-Hendersen Global deal and Financial Times of London deciding to pick up about 14 per cent stake in Business Standard.

Expenditure reforms commission

In response to the recommendations of the Expenditure Reforms Commission and after extensive review of the functioning of the various units of the ministry, a proposal was made to rationalize the structure of the units without adversely impinging on operational efficiency. Part of its effort was to cut the size of the government and the people it employs.

To this end, 1,334 posts in the various media units of the ministry were identified that could be abolished in a phased manner. Out of these, 334 posts have already been abolished.

...And more

Apart from these, yes, the I&B ministry has undertaken many other activities that can be termed routine and obligatory. But as I&B minister Prasad would put it, "People blame me for lot of things (including the CAS fiasco), but one must appreciate that I have inherited many things in a legacy and they were not my doing." May just turn out to be famous last words!

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