Mumbai: As the highest ranking bureaucrat dealing with an industry grappling with several issues that need urgent intervention, Asha Swarup, secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting, was the centre of attention at Frames 2008, the annual convention on the media and entertainment industry organized by industry lobby Ficci. On the sidelines of the event, she spoke to Mint on the controversial broadcast Bill, price regulation, and the new content code for news channels. Edited excerpts:
The media and entertainment industry has been asking for a review of the foreign direct investment (FDI) limits. Is the government looking into this demand?
There will be no review of FDI in news channels. So far as distribution platforms, such as DTH (direct-to-home) and HITS (headend in the sky) are concerned, we are going to go slowly to a cap of 74%. A decision needs to be taken (on disparate FDI limits in different media and entertainment sectors) but within the ministry, we have taken the view that distribution platforms, except for cable distribution (where the FDI is capped at 49%), need to go up to 74%.
No rethink: Asha Swarup says there will be no review of foreign direct investment in news channels.
Why not cable distribution?
Because of the number of cable operators. There are around 75,000 cable operators at present. Therefore, we do not want a very big inflow into the country... You have to keep the interest of the cable operators in mind. Also, the Cable Operators’ Federation of India has said they would like to go slow (on any increase in the FDI limit). There is no demand from them (for reviewing the FDI limit). The cable industry has not even reached the allowed limit.
What explains the government’s sudden interest in TV audience measurement?
I think we all agree that government getting into this is not a good idea in the long term. The broadcast industry in India has been completely free, unlike many other countries and we would like it to remain that way.
Yet, TV audience measurement remains a complex issue and right now, there is a monopoly in this area. We have had a lot of discussions during the past one year on what should be done with regard to audience measurement because the TRPs (television rating points or the percentage of viewers watching a channel or a programme at a given point in time) determine the content that goes on TV. Subsequent to our discussion with various stakeholders, we decided to refer the matter to Trai (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India), and they have also started the consultation process. We are also participating in that consultation process. Meanwhile, I’m happy to hear that IBF (Indian Broadcasting Federation) is working on (setting up) an audience measurement agency. This has been done in other countries, where the broadcasters themselves have come up with a more appropriate way to help the quality of the content.
So all this is happening and hopefully this issue of TAM monopolizing this area will be taken care of.
With the elections approaching and applications to launch news channels mounting, there seems to be some concern over the backgrounds of the promoters of these channels.
As of now, the background check is done by the ministry of home affairs. They are the people who do the security check of the directors and other people involved. But yes, there’s certainly some concern in the I&B ministry about the kind of channels that are coming up. In fact, it is a concern that is also shared by some of the people in the industry who have been talking to us. The concern is shared on the content side as well. We are looking into it and, may be something will come up.
Is the ministry likely to intervene on the issue of mounting carriage fees charged by cable operators?
Trai decides these things. If the broadcasters have a grievance, they should approach Trai. We will also get a copy of the representation and maybe then we’ll also make a recommendation. But the point is the broadcasters have to make the first move—to go to Trai.
Broadcasters are also opposing regulations on the pricing of channels. Do you think that in a free market the government should be intervening in such matters?
Again, these matters are looked into by Trai. It is Trai that decided that prices of channels should be regulated. If broadcasters find it unfair, they have to make a representation to them.
Broadcasters have made representations…
People have been vaguely talking about such things. Nobody has made a proper representation—neither to the ministry, nor to Trai. If they make a representation to us, we will look into it.
What is the status of the broadcasting Bill?
You think it can happen at this stage?
Does that mean it won’t come up before the elections?
Let’s not talk about it.
Several agencies are working on the content code for broadcasters. What is the status?
As far as the ministry is concerned, we have recently finalized the report by a committee that was set up under my chairmanship. Content code is separate from the broadcasting Bill. While the Bill needs to be passed by both the houses of Parliament, the content code is basically a regulation the government can just put in place. So, it can be introduced any time. We are waiting for the representations from some broadcasting bodies. IBF has given its representation, NBA (News Broadcasters Association) is still to submit its part. But we have finalized our recommendations and we have put it on our website. Also they were placed before the Delhi high court as the court had asked for a report.