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It seems that all it takes for regulation to take hold in a wayward sector is a new dispensation not inclined to look the other way. One diminutive toughie comes along, looks at the legislation that exists but has not been enforced, sets about enforcing it, and there is a flutter in the dovecotes.

Start tracking the advertising that engulfs you when you watch a film on TV and see if it comes down over the next few months. It probably will. Because a new rule that sets a cap of 12 minutes per hour on advertising came into effect in March. Counting from 31 March this year, broadcasters will have to submit quarterly reports on the minutes of advertising per hour that they carried. If they violate the prescribed cap, they risk being prosecuted.

Broadcasting regulation so far has been a story of either draft Bills which never got passed in Parliament, or laws like the Cable TV Act and Telecom Authority of India’s (Trai’s) own powers with regard to broadcasting, which were not enforced. The 12 minutes per hour advertising limit is enshrined in the rules of the Cable Act, which dates back to 1995. But, all governments thereafter let the industry persuade them that theirs was a financially unviable sector where enforcing such limits would push them out of business.

What is changing is that Rahul Khullar, the current head of Trai, who took over in May 2012, is clear that he is not here to win a popularity contest. He thinks the media in India has gone unregulated for far too long. “I don’t have to win a fucking election. I am a regulator, I am answerable to Parliament, my job is to enforce the law. Once the regulation is issued, it is law. The telecom guys know this. The broadcasting guys are learning it late."

He adds that the conciliatory noises the information and broadcasting minister has been making to industry are for public consumption. “What (information and broadcasting minister) Manish Tewari says to broadcasters and what he says to me are two different things."

While the broadcasters protest loudly about the advertising cap making them unviable and quibble about Trai’s jurisdiction, he waves a slim red rule book with a black binding and reads out from it to underscore that everything he is doing is within his mandate. “Trai has recommendation powers, absolute powers, fee-fixation powers, residual powers."

The law was passed in 1997 to tackle telecom, a brief para of amendment in 2004 simply said that hereafter broadcasting and cable services would be treated as telecommunication services. And incidentally, the 2004 notification specifically talks about powers to specify a cap on advertising in the interests of consumer protection.

Other balls currently in Khullar’s court have been thrown into it by the I&B ministry. One is the issue of audience measurement for television. The ministry wants Trai’s help to fix the TV ratings mess and has asked it to make recommendations on this. The regulator is simultaneously proceeding with consultation on the cross-media ownership issue because the ministry had asked Trai to make recommendations on this too four years ago, and in his view nothing very effective was done thereafter beyond a study being commissioned.

Khullar is short, feisty and bursting with expletives to describe the scenario that has been permitted to take hold here. The world over media owners are not allowed to be in all media sectors. “It’s one out of three or two out of three." But here both vertical and horizontal monopolies have been allowed to flourish. “TV vertical matters have come to a head. Will you tolerate a situation where the broadcaster becomes the LCO (local cable operator)?"

He thinks his approach is systematic. Put out a consultation paper and invite responses. Then, conduct open houses in different locations. “An open house is our way of dealing directly with people who cannot say it in writing. We come to you, we have not made up our minds." Then shut the door, process the inputs and come back with either new rules or the recommendations the ministry has asked for. The advertising order passed this March has capped a year of consultation and an open house.

On cross-media ownership, responses resisting the move have come from most media majors, and open houses have already been held in Ahmedabad and Hyderabad. This Saturday, there will be one in Delhi.

Finally, he says, for industry to understand you mean business, you have to prosecute. Post digitization, the first prosecutions on non-compliance are set to happen. “We have already launched prosecution against MSOs (multi-system operators) and LCOs who are not implementing the subscriber management system. The message is going out. And if I can take on an LCO, am I being evenhanded if I do not take on the others? I will be asked, why are you letting them off?"

Sevanti Ninan is a media critic, author and editor of the media watch website thehoot.org. She examines the larger issues related to the media in a fortnightly column.

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