Forget the race for eyeballs, TRPs and “breaking news.” The fiercest battle the broadcasting industry is fighting today is against the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), whose decision last March to enforce a rule limiting advertisement time on television to 12 minutes-per-hour has news channels up in arms. Though worried about the financial implications, the Indian Broadcasting Foundation, the umbrella industry body, had initially accepted the directive. Indeed, broadcasters had signed up to the rule as part of their original licensing arrangements. Though the regulator allowed a transition period whereby networks could gradually come into compliance, news channels lobbied the government and Information and Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari urged an unmoved TRAI to stand down till digitisation was complete. Citing shrinking revenues due to the ad-cap rule, the channels then moved the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT), which on Friday restrained TRAI from taking any coercive action for non-compliance.
While TRAI seems to have gone overboard in seeking criminal prosecution of channels, it would be unfair to blame it for going by the rule-book. The regulator is acting on behalf of consumers, who form the silent majority, rather than the vocal media businesses, which constitute a minority. At stake is not freedom of expression, but the bottom line, which is in trouble because of structural factors. Many news channels have a top-heavy model with distorted salary patterns. News networks have expanded way beyond their means. Their credibility is at an all-time low. A skewed television rating system allowed them to project greater reach than they had; expanding measurement to smaller towns is already reflecting different — and more realistic — viewership patterns. The gloomy economic environment is not helping. Many channels made a conscious decision to move towards integrated newsrooms to take advantage of technology. To only blame the TRAI decision for recent job-cuts — as is being done to exert pressure on it to pull back — is disingenuous. In the case of one big network, the downsizing appears to be a result of assertion of control by its new corporate owners. In fact, this issue — of corporate ownership and cross-media holdings — is next on TRAI’s agenda. As the regulator tries to clean up India’s broadcasting space, it should act only after due consultation with all stakeholders. It must also keep off issues of content. On its part, the government may be keen to curry favour with corporate media houses in the election season. But it would do well to stay out of the ad-time issue and allow the industry’s regulatory institutions to do their work.