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India’s sports broadcasting ecosystem threatened by ‘motivated’ PILs

iPetitioners have challenged law restricting sports feed to DD platforms

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MUMBAI: On 10 May 2019, the Delhi High Court issued a notice in a petition challenging Section 3 (1) of the Sports Broadcasting Signal (Mandatory Sharing with Prasar Bharati) Act 2007, which restricts the retransmission of live broadcasting signals of sporting events of national importance by Prasar Bharati only on its terrestrial and DTH (DD Free Dish) networks.

The petitioner Vaibhav Jain had sought that the DD signals should also be carried on digital platforms so that viewers can access the ongoing cricket World Cup matches shown on Doordarshan channels on a free-to-air basis. Despite the petitioner’s lawyer insisting that some order be passed for the upcoming World Cup, the Court denied relief and listed the matter for 22 July, a week after the World Cup concludes.

A similar petition has also been filed by one Ramesh Kumar in the Punjab & Haryana High Court. According to the PIL, the petitioner is a driver by profession and neither has access to cable and DTH networks nor owns a TV, and hence is unable to exercise his right to access sporting events of national importance on a free-to-air basis.

Those following the matter closely believe some vested interest groups are misusing the PILs to circumvent the orders of the Supreme Court to amend the Sports Act, which is not only against the interest of India's sports broadcasters but also detrimental to building a self-sustainable sports ecosystem in the country.

The Delhi HC PIL is the first challenge made to Section 3 (1) after the judgment passed in August 2017 by the SC which affirmed the Delhi High Court judgment and held that the live feed received by the public broadcaster from content right owners or holder is only for the purpose of retransmission on its own terrestrial and DTH networks and not to private cable operators.

The top court had clarified that sharing of signal with Doordarshan was to provide sporting content access to consumers who did not have it and not those who have already subscribed to private cable networks.

A similar interpretation of Section 3 (1) was offered by an earlier judgment of the SC in 2016, holding that Prasar Bharati was supposed to telecast sporting events for the benefit of general masses, who otherwise do not receive signals of private channel due to geographical remoteness or are lacking the financial capacity to pay for these channels.

However, Section 8 of the Cable Television Networks Act makes it mandatory for all cable operators to carry two Doordarshan channels. This meant cable operators got access to the broadcast of sporting events through two avenues: through the channels of Star or Sony, or other sports broadcasters, for which they have to pay subscription fees, and via the channels of Doordarshan, which are free.

In the recent consultation by MIB for extending mandatory sharing to private platforms, many sports federations including the AIFF (football), AITA (lawn tennis) among others argued that public interest is better served in ensuring that funds for sports development are generated by sale of media rights and extending mandatory sharing across all platforms will sound a death knell to sports funding.

For instance, the Indian Olympic Association’s feedback on the proposed amendment read, “It dents the commercial model of sports broadcast as buying of exclusive rights of sporting event, especially the Olympics Games and delivering it in world-class quality incurs very high investment for the private broadcasters in India. Competitive bidding of broadcast rights is imperative to up-keep the Olympic movement’s efforts to support sports and athletes. Besides, the niche sports that do not yield space in television broadcast unlike the popular sports of football, cricket, kabaddi, etc use new technologies and internet. Olympic Channel is also promoting the popularity of various sports through its network, which could be affected by the new amendment.”

Legal experts are of the view that in light of the Supreme Court judgment, as long as Section 3 (1) of the Sports Act stands in its present form, no court is likely to grant any interim relief permitting retransmission on private networks and digital platform. 

An industry insider, who wished to remain anonymous, indicated that sports content gives immense bargaining power to sports broadcasters and therefore, challenge to Section 3 (1) becomes important so as to restore the balance in favour of cable operators.

The outcome of challenge raised before the Delhi and Punjab High Courts will determine whether sports rights continue to remain viable considering that a successful challenge before the Courts would result in retransmission of sporting events by private cable and DTH operators along with the same being available for online streaming on a free-to-air basis.

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