TRAI has already expressed opinion on some issues

Tamil Nadu’s Arasu Cable TV network, Kerala’s proposal for a State-owned channel and the Central government’s dream of a thousand education channels could all be in trouble. Faced with a barrage of requests in an era of media-driven politics, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry has posed a question to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India: can governments enter the broadcasting sector?

TRAI has already expressed its opinion on some of these issues. In 2008, it put out a circular titled, “Issues relating to entry of certain entities into Broadcasting and Distribution activities”, in which it held that State governments and their organs may not be permitted to enter the field. TRAI pointed out that if the government controlled the distribution system, it could potentially dictate what people watched, leading to a kind of unofficial State censorship of television. The I&B Ministry had drafted a note based on TRAI’s views, and circulated it to major stakeholders.

With a sharp spike in the number of applications for channels and cable operations from government bodies, the Ministry is examining the issue again. Its fresh request to TRAI is comprehensive, asking the regulatory body to explore whether government – State or Central -- ministries, departments, public sector undertakings (PSUs), government-owned companies, government-funded entities, or even joint ventures with the private sector can be permitted to enter the sector. “The ministry has received requests from the Central government ministry and from several State governments in the past,” said an I&B statement on Tuesday.

Soon after taking charge last month, Union Minister for I&B Manish Tiwari had initially seemed positive towards political involvement in the broadcasting sector. Asked for his view on whether political parties and leaders could own channels or cable distribution systems he said: “There has always been an organic linkage between political movements and instruments of information dissemination…It continues to remain a fundamental freedom.”

However, secretary Uday Kumar Varma was quick to clarify that existing regulations do not allow State governments to own or operate a television channel.

Tamil Nadu’s Arasu is an anomaly. Formed by the DMK government in the context of a family feud between then Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi and the Maran clan, it was meant to take on Sun TV and its Sumangali cable network. With the families patching up, the corporation was defunct, until the present Chief Minister Jayalalithaa revived it in her own bid to fight Sumangali’s market dominance.

However, Arasu’s July 2012 application for a digital addressable system license – made mandatory under the new digitisation regime – is still pending. TRAI’s new recommendations could thus be critical for Arasu’s survival.

  • TRAI said in 2008 governments may not be permitted to enter the field

  • Arasu’s future depends on TRAI’s new recommendation