It's all about control & populism

A new set of regulations relating to sports broadcasting, given the green signal by the Indian Cabinet earlier this week, is retrograde and highlights the height of populism that politicians can climb. And, all in the name of public interest, which certainly is the last thing that’s on politicians’ priority list.

If the mandatory content sharing with pubcaster Doordarshan is not enough, the government in all likelihood is set to walk into more legal wrangling as such a move would not only diminish the sports events’ value, but also have a tell-tale effect on private investment that is made for the development of sports in the country, in general.

The mandatory content sharing norm will apply to all future sports events, including those covered by existing contracts relating to broadcasting rights. In case of cricket where the rights have been obtained prior to this law coming into effect, all matches featuring India and the finals would have to be shared with DD by private rights holders.

And, Prasar Bharati, controlling DD and All India Radio, will be able to transmit such events on its “free to air terrestrial channel and (also) carried through satellite”, apart from its subscription-free DTH service. Of course, the ad revenue accruing through such events on DD will be shared in the ratio of 75:25 in favour of private rights holders.

What does this mean? Prasar Bharati gets prized sporting events almost free of cost, while private broadcasters and rights holders’ business model relating to subscription revenue goes for a six. Almost.

Having created the coffin for pay channels, which depend heavily on exclusive events to drive subscription revenue, the government also has tightened the noose around foreign news channels, saying they would not be allowed landing rights in India unless cleared on a case-to-case basis if they have programming and advertising targeted at the Indian audiences.

By giving itself discretionary powers to waive permission regarding foreign news channels, the government has taken several steps backward at a time when it is committed to liberalization. The more things appear to change, the less they actually change.

However, the contentious issue of content sharing has its genesis in private broadcasters getting into legal spat over rights with DD.

It has to be admitted that continued refusal to share cricket, still a money-spinner despite Indian team’s indifferent performances in recent times, with DD --- a certain Dubai-based sports broadcaster is considered a major irritant within the government --- just strengthened the government’s resolve to bring in stringent norms.

Had the broadcasting industry not missed the wood for the trees, it would have realized the importance of the pubcaster, especially in a country like India where still approximately 40 million TV homes don’t get cable TV, and the fact that pushed into a corner politicians would give into populist measures. All in the interest of the so-called masses.

And, what about the Indian cricket board? It would be interesting to see how the bidders for domestic cricket react now? It would not be totally outlandish to conjure a scenario where private players like ESPN Star Sports, Zee Sports, SET India and even Ten Sports bury their differences --- whatever they may be --- to bring down cricket rights prices to levels that might knock the financial bottom out of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and make a dent in its arrogant attitude. After all, enemy’s enemy can turn out to be an ally.

In hindsight, the regulatory developments lend credence to the age old tale of two monkeys fighting for a piece of cake, while the cat ended up eating the whole of it. Today it is sports, notably cricket; tomorrow it might be just any other content on TV.

Self-regulation and some introspection within the industry, probably, is the best medicine that the doctor could prescribe.

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