New Delhi: Legal battles are becoming commonplace in India’s broadcasting industry, with three disputes landing in the courts in the past two weeks, as competition for customers intensifies. Some analysts blame overregulation, complex pricing and policy lagging the pace of change in technology for the disputes.
In the latest row, direct-to-home (DTH) television service provider Tata Sky Ltd announced price cuts and revamped the basic bouquet of channels offered to customers, dropping all English-language networks including popular sports broadcasters such as Star Sports and ESPN. Tata Sky was dragged to the Delhi high court by ESPN Software India Pvt. Ltd, which won a ruling in its favour on 6 June.
“The level of legal disputes seen in India is a bit on the higher side compared to other developed markets such as the US, UK or even Hong Kong or Singapore,” said Anjan Mitra, executive director for India at the Cable and Satellite Broadcasting Association of Asia, an industry body present in most Asian markets.
With competition intensifying in the broadcast industry, players are seeking legal recourse to settle issues (Photo by: Indranil Bhoumik / Mint)
“Partly it’s true that the Indian market is still evolving and so is more likely to face teething problems, but overregulation in India is also a factor leading to such situations,” he added. On 30 May, two Essel Group firms—cable operations company Wire and Wireless India Ltd and DTH service provider Dish TV India Ltd—petitioned the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) against Star Den Media Services Pvt. Ltd. The petitioners said the distribution company was refusing to allow its channels to be transmitted on their new platform, Headend In The Sky, or Hits.
Star Den is an equal joint venture between News Corp.-owned Star India Pvt. Ltd and DEN Digital Entertainment Networks Pvt. Ltd and distributes 17 channels, which include general entertainment channel Star Plus and CNBC TV18, among others. Den Digital is a venture launched by Sameer Manchanda, the co-promoter of IBN18 Pvt. Ltd, a Network18 company.
In another dispute, Tata Sky dragged Dish TV to the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Commission (MRTPC), arguing that the latter’s advertisement offering subscribers a free set-top box was misleading. It then went to the Delhi high court after the commission did not restrain it.
Mitra cited the complex matrix for calculating prices of TV channels for various delivery platforms as a factor in the bickering. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, or Trai, which is also the regulator for the broadcast industry, fixes the maximum price a consumer can be charged for a channel. The prices for the same channels are different for cable operators and DTH providers.
Prices in the so-called conditional access system (CAS) areas are different from non-CAS areas. CAS is a system by which electronic transmission of satellite television signals through cable is limited to subscribed clients.
In CAS areas, the price that can be charged to a consumer is capped at Rs5 per channel per month, while in non-CAS areas, prices, depending on the city and the number of channels offered by a cable operator can be anywhere between Rs100 and Rs260 per month for the whole bouquet.
An official at an industry body, who did not want himself or the organization named, cited three factors as the source of “majority of disputes”: price control, heavy taxation, lack of a dedicated regulator and policy not keeping pace with new technology.
Trai chairman Nripendra Misra, however, doesn’t agree. “It’s not true that there is a regulatory vacuum or overregulation. Trai orders have been challenged in TDSAT as well as the Supreme Court but our position has always been upheld, with no exceptions.” Misra says when interested parties try to corner more than their fair share of the cake, litigations will arise.
Experts, however, say lesser regulation could be a solution. “If market forces are allowed to decide certain norms, most issues will get resolved amicably. Simpler and minimal regulation, especially in a country like India where the judicial process is too time-consuming, could be a way out to the problem,” added Mitra.