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Cross-media holding: Indian policymakers push for regulations

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NEW DELHI: A section of policymakers in India is not in favour of market forces taking care of monopolistic trends in the increasingly converging print and electronic media. It has recommended government intervention—a thought-process that can have wide-ranging implications on activities of broadcasting companies, MSOs and even LCOs if put into action.

Stating that it cannot “ignore the concerns expressed by the industry,” parliament’s Standing Committee on Information Technology in its 44th report last week observed that issues related to vertical monopolies and cross-media holdings have “serious implications for the print and electronic media in India and cannot be simply left to the market forces…  (and) need suitable intervention of government from time to time.”

In its submission before the committee, comprising members of parliament (MPs) from the upper and lower houses, TRAI made it clear that it had twice in the last six years submitted wide-ranging suggestions on media holdings and vertical monopoly that were not yet accepted by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) though it would be “desirable” to implement the recommendations on a “priority basis”.

MIB, however, told the parliamentary panel that it was not in favour of “too much control to restrict” the areas of operation of media entities and regulations should aim at preventing exploitation by any particular entity while leaving the remaining dynamics to the market forces.

Among the many suggestions made by the TRAI to calculate market dominance via a complex formula, the regulator had strongly advocated barring federal and state governments and organisations controlled by it from entering into the business of broadcasting and distribution of TV services while suggesting exit options for such organisations. Political parties, too, were isolated by the regulator from entering directly into the broadcasting and distribution business.

In India, quite a few broadcasting and distribution platforms, especially MSOs and LCOs, are directly or indirectly owned and controlled by political parties/politicians/MPs/state government(s). Tamil Nadu government-owned MSO Arasu—also discussed by the committee in its report—is one such example.

The committee directed the government to update it on the action taken on recommendations made by TRAI on issues of vertical monopolies and cross-media holdings.

Interestingly, the News Broadcasters Association or the NBA had strongly pleaded before the committee that vertical monopoly or integration of distribution platforms and broadcasting companies was “not healthy” for either the cable or the broadcasting sectors. Reason: such integration and interplay made room for “bias” and, more importantly, removed the concept of a level playing field. The NBA had also clarified its apprehensions saying vertical integration would affect consumer choice too.

“NBA has submitted that cross media ownership is not a healthy trend in media industry and has the potential of creating serious conflict of interest situation, which can stifle both the content side and business side of media companies,” the parliamentary panel in its report said.

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