Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Opinion | Reinterpreting public interest broadcasting

The need for economic liberalization three decades ago confirmed that licences are inimical to growth

Populist politics tends to lead to short-term policy goals in most democracies. This is why many economic policies aim at instant consumer gratification in India—and explains why even minimal fuel price cuts regularly make headlines. Part of the job of a responsible bureaucracy is to espouse more balanced public interest objectives. This includes acknowledging the fact that the long-term welfare of market participants such as producers and intermediaries also affects consumers. However, line ministries like the ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB) often fail to perform this balancing act for the markets they govern. 

Unenviably, the MIB functions as a licensor in a broadcasting market where there are hundreds of private operators spanning print, television and radio. The need for economic liberalization three decades ago had already confirmed that licences are inimical to market growth. Today, licencing is reminiscent of a bygone era of acute market scarcities. Additionally, the internet has rapidly democratized consumer access to content markets globally, outside of any such licencing paradigm. Yet, the MIB shows a persistent bias towards licencing-inspired interventions to stay relevant. For example, its latest rulemaking initiative may permanently distort the market for sports broadcasting in India. 

Specifically, the MIB plans to introduce a legislative amendment to force content owners to share live sports signals deemed to be of “National Importance" with the public broadcaster, Prasar Bharati, for re-transmission over private TV distribution networks. It would do so through the relevant Doordarshan channels. A public consultation document has been floated by the MIB in mid-October to this effect. 

TV broadcasts are carried to over 150 million homes by private cable and satellite distribution networks. Another 30 million homes access public-service broadcasts through direct to home and terrestrial networks owned by Prasar Bharati. The Sports Broadcasting Signals Act, 2007 (“the Act") which the MIB wishes to amend, was promulgated to make sports-broadcasts of “national importance" available to low-income homes. Simultaneously, all distributors are mandated to carry Doordarshan channels by an older law governing private networks. Until recently, Prasar Bharati chose to employ a combined interpretation of both laws to retransmit sports broadcasts acquired under the Act through public and private networks. 

However, in August 2017, the Supreme Court clarified the obligation of content owners as being limited to sharing of sports signals for re-transmission only over Prasar Bharati’s networks. The MIB now seeks to bypass this judicial interpretation, in order “to ensure access to the largest number of viewers". This motive is suspect because free sports programming of national interest is already made available on the airwaves under the Act. Any lack of consumption of free programming is simply a function of consumer choice in favour of private networks. It is safe to assume that households which can pay for private networks can easily put an additional dish or antenna to access free sports programming. 

Conversely, if a live signal is carried simultaneously on both paid and free TV, advertisers would naturally pay less for their time slots on private networks, eroding the margins of businesses which own the underlying content. And Prasar Bharati would see a windfall without taking any production risk because live sporting events would draw greater advertising revenues than its usual repertoire of content.

Reducing the scope for monetising privately-held intellectual property (IP) is akin to throttling the lifeline of the sports economy in India—a fact not unknown to the MIB. Prasar Bharati had negotiated acquisition of five-year rights to broadcast Indian cricket matches for a paltry sum of 227 crore in 1999 with the BCCI, whereas a similar set of rights were subsequently sold for about 12 times this value to a private broadcaster in 2006. A panic-struck MIB pre-empted its inability to compete in an open market, and issued an ordinance which served as a precursor to the 2007 Act. 

IP rights for broadcasting account for well over 85% of hockey and football revenues too. The growth of regional sporting leagues which has finally made sports a viable career is fuelled by similar economics. Owing to limited scope for scaling up government expenditure, most future investments in local sports be private sector driven. The global sports market is already worth around 1% of gross domestic product (GDP), whereas the annual ‘Khelo India’ cash outlay works out to less than 0.04% of India’s GDP.

Unfortunately, the creation of market value spurs predatory impulses within corresponding line ministries. Consequently, the MIB is interpreting public interest narrowly and in self-interest—by forcibly acquiring private IP for profit. Prasar Bharati barely generates enough revenue to cover its own programming costs—and is dependent on heavy grants from the MIB. Re-transmitting the IP owned by others will perpetuate this culture of handouts rather than stimulate any impetus towards creating quality public-service content. Prasar Bharati may soon become completely unable to overcome its structural deficits, like many other publicly-owned body corporates. This would leave Indian consumers worse-off in the long run, even as the proposed legislative amendment nips the growth of the nascent sports economy in the bud. 

Vivan Sharan is a Partner at Koan Advisory Group, New Delhi. These are is personal views.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com 

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