Sunday Anchor

Raking in the airwaves

Cricket, politics and films have been all-consuming obsessions in India, often converging on each other. This heady cocktail has been the staple for television too, which, in the early 1990s, meant only Doordarshan. In 1992, newspapers reported how DD, as Doordarshan was popularly called, demanded Rs. 5 lakh from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to broadcast matches shown in India. DD at the time held sway over the broadcasting scene by virtue of being the only one around. Given what the BCCI is worth, this sounds preposterous today.

Between Sony, Star and Ten Sports, the broadcasters have now spent a little over Rs. 3,000 crore this year to bag the rights to Indian Premier League, Champions League and International Cricket Council matches, with the BCCI snagging a large chunk of the money. This is a far cry from the days when the Board had to pay DD. Today, the cricket board is in the position to spell out the rules of the money of the game. As mind-boggling as these figures are, they just show what a money-spinner cricket has become since 1992 when India took its first tentative steps to embrace economic reforms.

And just as the BCCI was never free of politicians who struck friendships that defied political affiliations, the decisions to award telecast rights were never free of political controversies. In the first few decisions taken by the BCCI, the board sold the rights to the England-India series to TransWorld International (TWI), and DD was asked to pay a million dollars to telecast the matches in India. The Board pocketed close to $6,00,000.

The Board struck gold, but with it came the attendant problems of litigation. In March 1993, Jagmohan Dalmiya, president of the Cricket Association of Bengal, wrote to DD about the telecast of five national cricket matches, inviting the broadcaster to bid for the rights that it had sold to the TWI. The protracted negotiations ended on the floor of the Supreme Court. Doordarshan struck a patriotic chord by refusing to buy the rights from TWI for the telecast of matches in India. The Information and Broadcasting Ministry, DD’s parent body, stepped in to add its bit by declaring that only a government-appointed agency has the right to telecast cricket matches in India.

As the government stepped in, the Supreme Court declared in 1995 that airwaves were public property, to be regulated by a public authority. The judgment also held that the BCCI had the right to sell the telecast the rights of matches, as it was part of the fundamental right to free speech and expression.

This became the benchmark for future telecast of matches in India. For some broadcasters, this has become a headache. The scenario has changed in the last decade and DD is a pale shadow of what it used to be. Cable and DTH have taken over and changed the rules of the game, with private broadcasters and DD slugging it out with each other for telecast rights.

Private broadcasters are also fighting each other while battling BCCI. There is the memorable case involving broadcaster Zee and the BCCI: in 2004, the former emerged as the highest bidder but the board, it was said, was predisposed to ESPN. Zee was disqualified on technical grounds and the matter went to the courts again. The BCCI was at the time headed by quintessential politician Sharad Pawar. Whispers were heard about how Zee chairman Subhash Chandra was trying to get close to Mr. Pawar in the hope of a change in decision. With Lalit Modi negotiating the deal, the rights went to Nimbus for Rs. 2,400 crore.

This wasn’t the end of the saga. Somewhere, Nimbus defaulted and Star secured the rights for six years (2012-’18). But there was more drama to follow.

In 2004, India decided to play Pakistan, the decision sending the two nations into competing nationalist frenzy. Writes Alam Srinivas, in his book, Cricket Czars, “Everyone knew that India’s cricket tour to Pakistan in 2004 would attract hundreds of millions of viewers in the respective nations, as well as similar number in the Middle East and countries such as the U.S., U.K., Canada. Ten Sports, the Dubai-based sports channel, which had the rights to telecast the series, knew it could rake in hundreds of millions of dollars. Mr. Modi, the Indian distributor, was confident to earn billions of rupees as every Indian would want to subscribe to the channel for those few weeks. However, there were two party poopers — MIB and Prasar Bharti. Both claimed that since the India-Pakistan series was in ‘national interest’, DD had the right to live telecast all the matches on its terrestrial network, which was its monopoly. In an interim judgment, the Supreme Court agreed. It ruled that although DD could telecast the matches, it had to show the Ten Sports feed, along with the advertisement breaks of the private sports channels. The example only shows how patriotism, governance, cricket were all mixed up with commerce.

Broadcasters say proximity to BCCI members usually helps as board decisions are not always decided on merit. But the larger dilemma facing them now is that securing telecast rights after having bid for the rights doesn’t always spell money, even though cricket continues to be profitable for the BCCI and for broadcasters. The broadcasting landscape has changed. There is the Internet now and rights for anything related to cricket. The fun, clearly, has gone from the telecast of the game.

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