Have you noticed that when your favourite soap on television takes a commercial break, the volume of the advertisements that hit your screen suddenly jumps up by a few decibels? Instinctively, you make a dive for the remote to reduce the cacophony. But if you thought it was a technical glitch that the television channels just cannot set right, among other things, think again. The change in audio levels could be deliberate to drown you in the marketing messages flashing on your screen. To be fair, broadcasters are allowed to sell commercial time to companies and brands to make money. What is not fair is the way they treat their viewers in the bargain and violate almost every rule in the book related to the advertising code.
Under the law, television channels must ensure that “the picture and the audible matter of the advertisement shall not be excessively loud.” That is not all. They must also ensure that “all advertisements should be clearly distinguishable from the programme and should not in any manner interfere with the programme...use the lower part of the screen to carry captions, static or moving alongside the programme.” If you can think of a single channel in the news or entertainment genres which does not allow ads to crawl on the screen, please do let us know.
The most common and widespread violation is that of the advertising duration. A two-hour or two-and-a-half-hour film often stretches for up to four hours on television. Basically, the film is inserted between the ad breaks. Take it or leave it. Even your favourite serial that takes a commercial break does not resume in a hurry or within the legally permissible time-off limit. “No programme shall carry advertisements exceeding 12 minutes per hour, which may include up to 10 minutes per hour of commercial advertisements, and up to two minutes per hour of a channel’s self promotions programmes,” says the law. In short, a half-hour soap should not carry spots for more than five to six minutes. But that’s in the realm of law. In practise, at least nine minutes per half hour are used up for advertisements, according to officials at the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai), the regulator for the broadcasting and telecom industries.
Broadcasting sector executives, especially those working for news channels, privately smile at Trai’s naivete. They say that during the peak festival season or in the case of an important event, the duration of advertising goes up to 30 minutes per hour. Little surprise then that Trai – which held open-house discussions with consumer rights groups recently – is taking up the issue with the government on behalf of millions of television viewers.
Last week, it wrote to the ministry of information and broadcasting to ask if it had taken or planned to take any action against the erring channels as it needed the information to argue its case, which is coming up for hearing in TDSAT, or the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal where it was dragged by the broadcasters last year. In May 2012, the sector regulator notified the Standards of Quality Service (duration of advertisements in television channels) Regulations 2012 to seek relief for television viewers from excessively long ad breaks. It was promptly challenged by the broadcasters, who asked if Trai had jurisdiction over the matter. The case is sub-judice.
To be sure, it’s not that the rules on advertising duration did not exist or that Trai sprang them on the unsuspecting channels surreptitiously. They have, in fact, always been a part of the Act that governs cable television in India and have been amended from time to time. The trouble is the regulations are not enforced by the government. By the way, even the Electronic Media Monitoring Centre (EMMC) monitors and maintains a list of violations related to the advertising regulations. The government-run EMMC monitors all TV channels downlinked in India to check violations of programming and advertising codes. The government can also give it specific monitoring assignments.
It is frustrating for television viewers to watch commercials way beyond the permitted limit as it is the only medium of entertainment that’s affordable. Sadly, increasingly it acts only as a marketing platform for products being hawked by companies. Common sense dictates that laws that have been enacted must be enforced.
Shuchi Bansal is marketing and media editor with Mint. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org