In a sign of soaring tensions, I&B Ministry considering all options to rescue industry

Even as the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has made repeated public appeals to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India to reconsider limiting ad time to 12 minutes per hour on television, the regulator is firm on enforcing the rule. It has complained to the Delhi Chief Metropolitan Magistrate against 14 channels for non-compliance and sought criminal prosecution.

This has caused panic among certain broadcasters which have knocked on the doors of the government. Unhappy with TRAI, the Ministry is now considering ‘all options’, in a sign that tensions between the government and regulator will escalate.

TRAI’s stand

In March, TRAI decided to enforce the 12-minute ad-cap rule, which is part of the original licensing agreement signed by the broadcasters but has not been enforced. According to a TRAI source, “This was preceded by long consultations. For at least a year and a half, the industry has known about our intent.” The aim is to improve the “quality of consumer experience” and “service.”

But channels say this would make their operations unsustainable. In May, the Indian Broadcasting Foundation asked TRAI for ‘regulatory forbearance’. The regulator agreed that between July and September entertainment channels could have 16 minutes of ads, while news channels could telecast 20 minutes of ads.

This, according to both TRAI and industry sources, was based on the understanding that there would be ‘full compliance’. From October 1, all channels would implement the 12-minute rule.

But as it tracked the numbers over the first three weeks, TRAI noted that certain channels were repeatedly showing ads beyond the limit prescribed during the transition. “These channels neither followed the law, nor did they live up to their word. It was also unfair to those broadcasters which had abided by the understanding.” TRAI says it filed the complaint following this violation.

While general entertainment channels have more or less been on board, news channels have accused the regulator of acting against their interests. But TRAI, rubbishing the criticism, says: “We pushed digitisation. We then filed cases against Local Cable Operators and Multi-System Operators. There was no complaint then since it suited the big channels. No one is above the law.”

News channels have lobbied with the government to seek a reversal of the TRAI decision.

Among other reasons, companies like Network 18 have ascribed their decision to lay off employees to the new ad-cap rule since it would reduce revenues.

Tewari’s plea

Last Saturday, in the presence of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, I&B Minister Manish Tewari urged TRAI to enforce the rule concurrent with the digitisation process. This would mean postponing it till the end of 2014. The Ministry argues this will allow channels to earn revenues through subscription, cut costs on carriage fees and reduce dependence on ads. He has also conveyed a similar message through interviews.

But the private message has not been accompanied by any direct communication. I&B Secretary Bimal Jhulka confirmed to The Hindu, “We have not sent any letter to the regulator.” This has led some in the industry to suspect that the government could be playing a ‘double game’ of public appeals and private silence. But a senior government official dismissed the insinuation as ‘rubbish’, and indicated that the Minister’s messages were more than a clear sign.

Till now, the government has couched its request in polite language, while TRAI has refused to comment. But on Monday, representatives of the News Broadcasters Association met Mr. Tewari to complain about TRAI’s charges in the court. The government, an official said, was now ‘deeply concerned’ and would take up the matter with the regulator.

“This is totally misconceived, and we expect the regulator to behave with a sense of responsibility, understand the economic environment. All options are now on the table.” said a source.

Asked what gave the government the authority to advise the independent regulator on its course of action, the official said: “The government is charged with ensuring the industry’s growth. In fact, the regulator is overstepping its jurisdiction. It only has a recommendatory role regarding ads.”

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