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The tussle over cricket


WILL sanity ever return to the business of cricket telecasting? Even as the successful Zee bid upped the ante in terms of bids for telecast rights, it increased the seasonal uncertainty which descends on the non-satellite viewer when a major series is being played for which a satellite sports channel has the rights. Come October will we again see the spectacle of Doordarshan in court trying to get a piece of the action? It was only in March this year that we saw Ten Sports deciding that it would not part with the terrestrial rights for the matches to be played in Pakistan, unless the price was right.

Why does the Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) need such obscene sums to hand out rights? Our cricketers are not exactly poverty stricken, but they will get 26 per cent of the board's gross revenue, we are told. The bidding has taken the price of international cricket rights within India, for four years, from Rs. 250 crores the last time around, to Rs. 1,400 crores! The Board says itwill use the money for the development of cricket in the country. As our recent performance in the Olympics will show, it is all the other sports that are in need of being developed.

Just look at the figures. What Zee will pay annually to the BCCI, Rs. 350 crores, is a figure that major entertainment channels are just about beginning to touch by way of revenue. It is equal to what Doordarshan earns in a year from all its channels. Yet DD this time was bidding upto Rs. 700 crores to secure the rights. If public service broadcasting has come to hinge so perilously on viewing cricket, should not the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) or the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) be doing something to persuade sports associations to change the current system so that either rights are not bundled or not given for long periods of time? The last time around, in March, we were told that the MIB was looking at drafting a law on the subject.

Zee's muscling into an arena where it was not even a player until now has to do with having its eye on the next battleground for market supremacy: Direct to Home (DTH) broadcasting. It will launch a sports channel and use its cricket rights to penetrate the DTH market much more speedily than it has done now, when it is the only player there. Just as Ten Sports did a few years ago when it bought the rights to World Cup football, launched a sports channel and gained instant entry into several million homes. Funny thing: now rural India, which has become the entry point for DTH, will have more assured access to cricket on TV than urban India.

Now we are going to be a country with not just too many news channels, but also too many sports channels. Every time someone rides into the arena on the basis of one set of rights, it stays to remain a player, looking around for a variety of other sports to put on air to keep going. So we are now watching far more European football, Formula One racing, American basketball and golf than we used to. Are other sports played in India becoming more saleable as a result of all that available airtime? Are you kidding?

* * *

Which type of politician would you rather have as a leader: Manmohan Singh or George Bush? Last Saturday one caught both, one after another. CNN did a programme called "The Mission of George Bush" which made you wonder: has the network already decided that he is going to be the winner in November? Aside of the mandatory oppositional sound bites, you had amazing harping on the man of faith who occupies the White House. Bush's day begins and ends with prayer, we have Laura Bush's word on that, and doubtless the war in Iraq is a God-given mission against the Axis of Evil. Together with the telecast of his acceptance speech at the national Republican convention, the composite picture that emerged was of a President who has mastered television, like successful candidates for the United States presidency before him. Bush trots out something clever, then pauses for the applause. Sample: "the people of America have been overcharged, and I am asking for a refund." Certainly the acceptance speech was a series of such one-liners delivered on a circular stage, while the convention delegates pitched in delightedly with the expected applause.

The PM's show

Shortly after, on the box on Saturday, you had the Indian Prime Minister facing a press conference. Americans would be rendered speechless at this statistic: no Indian prime minister has faced a nationally televised press conference for the last 12 years. This one was being hailed as being heroic for doing so after just 100 days in office. You mean you can actually govern the world's largest democracy for entire terms without using the idiot box for an exercise in accountability? Yes indeed. And when you do commune on the box as Mr. Vajpayee did earlier this year, you cannot be guaranteed a re-election.

Watching one man after the other was like going from a performer to a taciturn doer. We were not entertained, we were simply reassured that the country is headed by a man who has a grasp of a range of issues, does not waffle, and can evade with grace.

While TV news channels were at hand to hype up the moment, if you were looking for a CNN equivalent, you found it a couple of days later. Between Outlook and the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) (now why do they sound suspiciously like they are one and same in the magazine's latest cover story?) we are being assured that our 100-day-old PM has come into his own, steely, assertive and confident. The one-liners may be some way off yet, and a PM who prefers to stick to English may not warm hearts in the Hindi belt. But in a country with so much to do, we could use a doer over a performer. As the last election demonstrated, elections in India are not won as yet on TV.

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