A media firm that applied for a television licence to start a news channel close to a year ago is yet to receive the required approvals. Fed up with inexplicable delays, the company has, meanwhile, been looking to acquire an existing licence in the hope that it could launch its channel quickly. The firm is already bearing a huge cost keeping its entire infrastructure, including studios and staff, ready but not being able to monetize it. A person familiar with development said on condition of anonymity that the company is suffering because it had also signed corporate deals with advertisers in the hope that the approvals would come on time. That hasn’t happened.

To be sure, acquiring an existing licence is no guarantee that things would speed up. The company will still need an array of approvals from the information and broadcasting (I&B) ministry. The only consolation is that the media firm is not alone in its misery. Companies keen to launch satellite TV channels have to often wait for more than a year just to obtain permissions. Star India Pvt. Ltd, for instance, got the relevant permissions for its sports channels after waiting for one-and-a-half years.

It was probably keeping such instances in mind that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) had floated a consultation paper on ease of doing business in the broadcasting sector at the end of July. Its aim was to address procedural bottlenecks and policy issues by laying down transparent processes, facilitating innovation and introducing investor-friendly policies. In response to the consultation paper, several broadcasters, cable companies and direct-to-home TV operators put forth their point of view on what constitutes ease of doing business.

Satellite television broadcasters, for one, voted in favour of single-window clearance. Right now, for instance, a plethora of documents are required when filing an application with the I&B ministry for fresh uplinking or downlinking licences. For uplinking licence for instance, the I&B ministry forwards the application to the ministry of home affairs (MHA), Department of Space, empanelled auditors of I&B and the ministry of corporate affairs. The clearances from these ministries and departments take four to five months.

After receiving all the clearances, the application is internally put up for approval to the director, joint secretary, additional secretary, secretary, minister of state and cabinet minister.

Later, a channel’s teleport operator applies to the Wireless Planning and Coordination (WPC) Wing for endorsement of the channel licence. After WPC, the teleport operator has to get final uplink approval from the Networks Operation Control Centre (NOCC) to operationalise the channel in India.

In its note to Trai, Times Network, the owner of channels such as Times NOW and ET NOW, has stressed the urgent need to simplify the policy with respect to satellite television channels, especially the process involved in obtaining permissions and reduce the time taken to procure licences. Getting clearances has been identified as a major bottleneck. “These unplanned time delays have an adverse impact on ease of doing business as it puts a question mark on subsequent business activities and impacts contractual obligations with other stakeholders in the value chain, not to mention the costs that would be incurred in keeping alive business interests while awaiting the statutory clearances," Times Network said in its note.

As mentioned earlier, the existing policy framework involves access to multiple clearances at different levels within the same ministry as well as between several ministries within the government. Currently the interaction within and between the ministries is manual or offline.

Times Network has suggested that critical processes and clearances such as the MHA, WPC and NOCC permissions be automated and aligned through an online mechanism that will not only save considerable time, but will also go a long way in improving efficiency in reviewing applications and granting the necessary approvals/clearances.

To be sure, the I&B ministry has launched a ‘Broadcast Seva’ portal to facilitate online payments and tracking of applications. Broadcast industry stakeholders suggest that this should be extended to facilitate online processing and approvals from various departments and ministries.

This would help in several ways—the online mechanism will allow for database management for the ministries. The volume of information that broadcasters submit while seeking approvals and clearances from the authorities will be available at the click of a button. Besides, online payment facility can be integrated into the system for efficiency.

Star India, too, is in favour of single-window clearance. “In an age of internet and ‘Digital India’, the ministry can set up an intranet (involving the concerned ministries) and the documents can be scanned and uploaded to allow the respective ministries and departments to give their feedback within a prescribed timeline. This is how erstwhile FIPB used to process FDI (foreign direct investment) applications," says a Star India executive. FIPB is short for Foreign Investment Promotion Board.

In its response to Trai’s consultation paper, it said that the single-window clearance system should be made effective and time-bound. It also argued in favour of extending ‘Broadcast Seva’ to other ministries, suggesting that they become a part of it.

The suggestions also include grant of permissions within a stipulated time-frame as broadcasters often end up losing money including through payment of valuable foreign exchange to foreign satellite operators. Clear-cut timelines within which such permissions are granted would be welcomed.

Shuchi Bansal is Mint’s media, marketing and advertising editor. Ordinary Post will look at pressing issues related to all three. Or just fun stuff.

Respond to this column at shuchi.b@livemint.com

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