Manish Tewari throws ball in industry’s court

At a time when the relationship between the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) and Indian television industry is strained, Minister for Information and Broadcasting (I&B), Manish Tewari, has asked broadcasters whether they want a new, separate ‘techno-commercial regulator’. His move to throw the ball in the court of the industry comes in the wake of a heated debate over the government’s moves regarding regulation.

Through a recent decision, TRAI has decided to enforce a pre-existing rule, which broadcasters voluntarily signed up to as a part of the licensing regime, to restrict ad-time to 12 minutes per hour. Broadcasters have complained to I&B Ministry that such a move would hurt the sector, since they remain dependent on advertising.

Speaking to broadcaster CEOs in the capital on Thursday, Mr. Tewari appeared sympathetic, and said the government was not playing ‘good cop-bad cop’ with the TRAI on the issue. “We understand that with digitisation still unfolding, and subscription revenues not yet streamlined, there is a strong and prudent case to find a modus vivendi.” He said that the ministry would aim to ‘facilitate a dialogue between the industry and the regulator’ on the issue.

‘Techno-commercial’ regulation

When pointed out that the 12-minute restriction was a pre-existing rule, Mr. Tewari said, “Are you really going to kill the goose in the process of implementing rules?” He went on to draw an analogy with the telecom sector, a ‘success story’, “Look what has happened to telecom as a result of a cavalierly-written CAG report.” The minister emphasised that statutory rules had to be ‘implemented without causing unnecessary pain to the industry’.

Mr. Tewari mentioned that broadcasting did not fall under the initial remit of TRAI, and flagged the issue of whether, given its rapid growth and unique characteristics, it needed undivided attention and focus. “It is time for the industry to reflect on whether broadcasting needs a new regulator on the techno-commercial side.”

The minister clarified that the government would not ‘unilaterally impose’ any regulation, particularly on the content side. “Regulation will not come from the political executive.” Mr Tewari, however, warned that this may happen ‘from the judicial side’, and pointed out there were already a couple of High Court orders on the issue.

New revenue model

Raising the issue of developing more sustainable revenue models from the current ‘skewed’ ad-dependent model, the I&B Minister also urged the industry to come up with a Broadcasting and Research Council. With digitisation, Mr. Tewari said there was a wider database, without much cost. “The government is willing to hand over data to an industry body.” This could be used to analyse viewership patterns and ad trends. There is wide dissatisfaction within the industry vis a vis the existing television audience measurement systems, which shape advertising budgets.

While most broadcasters lauded the government for sticking to the digitisation deadline, cable operators raised concerns of ‘unemployment’ as a result of the process. The minister urged that all stakeholders must be taken on board, but also said that the ‘march of technology’ often made certain sectors redundant.