This is a government that has often pointed to the political constraints on its initiatives for enabling more efficient markets. It is the same government that easily resorts to arm-twisting the market economics of sporting event broadcasts, plays upon the populist sentiments of a nation, and has no scruples in infringing on property rights.
The case in point is the ordinance mandating sports channels, radio stations and content providers to share live telecast without advertisements with public broadcaster Prasar Bharati for sporting events of “national importance”. And its approval by the Union cabinet raises disturbing questions.
How are events of national importance defined? Is the forthcoming India-Sri Lanka match, or even the World Cup, a Constitutional emergency that warrants an ordinance? Why can’t Prasar Bharati bid competitively in the market?
In this instance, Nimbus Sports, which outbid other competitors and legally won exclusive (the operative word is exclusive) rights for four years for cricket matches organized by the Board of Cricket Control in India (BCCI) at the considerable cost of $612 million, was trying to protect its business interests. It wanted Prasar Bharati to encrypt the to-be-shared feed and not to telecast it on its free-to-air DTH service, which would clearly erode into its subscription viewership. The matter was in court. The I&B minister then decided his ‘moral obligation’ was “to ensure that millions of Indians, who can’t afford or don’t get cable TV, get to enjoy the ... cricket series”, and convinced other ministers to use the tool provided by the Indian Constitution for, many would logically think, more pressing matters than cricket.
The truth goes beyond a nation’s sentiment. Live cricket means big money. Why did Prasar Bharati not find the seven-minute deferred telecast offered by the rights holder, Nimbus, reasonable? If the public broadcaster were genuinely interested in the “poor who won’t have access”, then terrestrial feed would answer its concern. Why advertising-free feed and why should it have its own advertising on broadcasts that it won’t buy directly? Instead of the 25:75 sharing of Doordarshan’s ad revenues with Nimbus Sports, logic says Doordarshan could carry the broadcast with ads, and the owner of broadcasting rights could pay it part of its ad revenue for the access to additional viewers. In other words, if Prasar Bharati wants to make money, it should do it by competing in the market for broadcast rights. Not by expropriating these with the state’s muscle power.
In any case, there’s no larger social good in the story of this ordinance. If the government says it is providing free access to the common man to cricket, we may recall that BCCI , which manages and sells the cricketing broadcast rights, enjoys all the tax benefits of a not-for-profit society while making millions at market prices. So the common man, the taxpayer, is already subsidizing BCCI. The ordinance simply encourages the state-owned broadcaster ‘s inefficiency at the cost of private enterprise in the business of broadcasting in India. If one argues that BCCI ploughs back the money into Indian cricket, that benefit too could get eroded. How? Private players will no longer be willing to pay the prevailing prices , and broadcast rights would get devalued.
A far more dangerous signal stands out. If cricket matches are of national importance today, tomorrow it may be the Miss Universe contest if another Aishwarya Rai or Sushmita Sen walks the ramp. The day after, it may be the Oscar Awards, if another Lagaan is up there. Indeed, it may well be the next Border, or Sarfarosh, or Munnabhai —as they have patriotic or altruistic messages that serve the nation well. If Nimbus Sports can be accused of being unpatriotic because it wants to stick to its business plan, by this logic, government could expropriate any service (electricity? healthcare? education?) or product (bread, blankets, shoes?) through an ordinance, after having labeled unpatriotic a private provider’s refusal to share these on terms that violate his/her business interests.
Was an ordinance warranted in the Prasar Bharati-Nimbus dispute? Do write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org