New Delhi: India’s telecom regulator has no authority to limit the number of advertisements carried by TV channels, the lawyer of a grouping of news channels told the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT), which, on Monday, started hearing arguments related to the 12-minute cap on advertising in an hour of programming imposed by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai).
Appearing for the appellants, including the News Broadcasters Association, Supreme Court advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi termed Trai an “interloper” and argued that it did not have the power to regulate content on TV. He described advertisements as “a cornerstone of our economy” and a manifestation of free speech.
Several channels, including news channels, have protested the cap, claiming that it would force them out of business.
Chief executive officers (CEOs) of news channels refused to comment citing the sub-judice nature of the matter. However, in a story published in Mint on 10 July, Ashok Venkatramani, CEO of Media Content and Communications Services (India) Pvt. Ltd, the company that operates ABP News, had said, “The situation for news channels is indeed very grave. This will reduce the saleable inventory to less than half of the current levels for news channels.”
K.V.L. Narayan Rao, executive vice-chairperson at NDTV Group, agreed. “From 1 October, the situation may be disastrous,” he had said. Rao had added that while inventory will be halved, ad rates cannot be doubled.
Singhvi referred to the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, and said this has prescribed norms that govern the broadcast of advertisements on news channels, a power which the central government and Trai were seeking to usurp, he claimed. He also argued that broadcasters were outside the punitive powers of the regulator as defined by the Indian Telegraph Act, 1985.
Advocates representing Trai could not be reached for comment.
Nearly all channels have implemented the 12-minute cap, with several entertainment and sports channels increasing (or trying to increase) their ad rates to compensate for the potential loss of revenue.
Legal experts however, were split on the legal veracity of arguments.
“The challenge before the TDSAT seems to be similar to what was in issue before the Supreme Court in 1972, when the Newsprint Control Order was challenged by many news houses led by Bennett Coleman. The limit of 10 pages for newspapers and the government argument on restricting uncontrolled advertisements was rejected there. It seems to me that the same rationale might apply here, but being a sub-judice matter, it is for the tribunal alone to decide on the facts and law as to what is correct,” said Gopal Sankaranarayanan, an advocate at the Supreme Court who has also taught media law.
Other lawyers say Trai can impose the cap. “According to Trai Act, 1997, and as far as quality or service of content are related, the predominant purpose of TV channels is to show content related to their job, whether it is sports or news. If content is getting overwhelmed by advertisements, then Trai is well within its rights to impose this rule. However, it is for the tribunal alone to decide on the facts and law,” said Haripriya Padmanabhan, an advocate of the Supreme Court.
The bench presided over by Justice Aftab Alam and member of TDSAT Kuldip Singh instructed the court to reconvene on Tuesday and continue with the proceedings.