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HomeArticlesBroadcast BillGrave Ramifications of the Broadcast Bill
Sunday, 13 April 1997 00:00

Grave Ramifications of the Broadcast Bill

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In recent history, no other business visitor to India has attracted more attention than the whistle-stop tour of the world’s richest man -Bill Gates. Our country’s corporate titans hung onto every word of his, drinking it in like gospel truths, with emotion bordering mass hysteria. 

If one had to express his entire presentations in a single word - then it is CONVERGENCE. The theme for the future is that it there will be just one cable entering every home. And this solitary wire would carry just about everything under the sun, and probably the moon as well, covering satellite television, video teleconferencing, Internet access, teletext, teleshopping, interactive TV etc. 

Against such a backdrop of swiftly changing technologies, the Broadcast Bill could well end up being a Rip Van Winkle if does not adequately provide for the future technologies. Besides, India’s peculiar requirements have time and again shown that one cannot simply transplant a highly capital-intensive technology with the hope that it is the best solution for India just because it has succeeded abroad. What is needed here is a holistic approach that takes into account questions of employment and egalitarianism. Such is the dilemma faced in the context of for instance; the small cable operators’ operation, which already provides employment to twelve lakh people. 

Most of these operators are a very amorphous lot, scattered all across the country with little cohesiveness in their efforts. Although most lack formal training, most of them have a lot of pluck and native entrepreneurial spirit. Because of lack of geographical proximity and being, by definition, largely away from the metros, they have not been able to drum up support from lobbies in the Parliament, as has been possible for the big operators with their money muscle and comfortable perches in the nation’s capital. The less educated cable operators are little match for the polished business savvy of the business operators, lots of whom enjoy overseas backing. 

Notwithstanding these odds, certain valiant cable operators are banding them together, to put up their demands with a single voice. Prominent in this league are the Cable Operators Action Committee and Cable Networks Association. This time the government has managed to something really difficult - displease virtually everyone who would have anything to do with the Prasar Bharati Bill. Generally, in Bills such as these, there are always those who are benefited and come away looking happy. Not so this time, where virtually all seem to be turning detractors, whether the players are big or small, domestic or foreign, sky-borne operators or ground-borne operators. But on the whole, it is the small and domestic players who seem to be the worst off. 

All Unquiet on the Western Front

But opposition is coming from not just the small end of the business but also from biggies from international entertainment and electronics business. Charges of covert attempts to introduce restrictive trade practices in the new broadcast bill are now being flung at the Deve Gowda government. In a recent meeting attended by the heads of General Electric, Sony, Disney and Rupert Murdoch, they felt that their business prospects would be adversely affected. The luminaries are taken aback by what they perceive as a marked shift in the position adopted by the Indian Prime Minister at Davos and have sent him their views also stating their intention of wanting to see him. 

It is reported that the Prime Minister’s Office has taken careful stock of the note and circulated it to various Ministries. It is further reported that RAW and IB have defended their earlier stand saying that their suggested uplink system is much on lines found in countries like US, Malaysia and Singapore. They have refused to reconsider their earlier suggestions regarding uplinking in the Broadcast Bill. 

It is pertinent to note that the committee of secretaries has suggested that the law must specifically make uplinking from India mandatory for all broadcasters. This committee had been set up to propose changes in the Broadcast bill to the Union Cabinet. Part of suggestions were to require foreign satellite channels targeting India to downlink their programs through a station in India where it will screened. Subsequently, the signal would be again uplinked through a government-owned or rented satellite before once again downlinking for the final distribution. This roundabout route is not finding favour with international majors. 

The foreigners are also unhappy about the structure and functions of the Broadcast Authority of India It is therefore only for the better that the committee of secretaries has sought to redress the present imbalance by recommending the inclusion of a journalist as a full-time member as well as include more part-time members as well as a full-time chairman, vice-chairman, secretary general and three or four ex-officio members. The idea is to have experts and industry figures in the board. Surprisingly, the foreigners are not so upset at the forty nine per cent cap on foreign holding. Probably this pragmatism in approach has come because this limit is often far stricter in foreign countries. For instance, the US has a twenty five percent cap on foreign holdings. While the global giants are very keen to get into India in a big way, there is a strong possibility that this keenness will not translate into investment if the Broadcast Bill is passed without any changes. 

Rumblings from among the Ministries

Not content with enough problems that it already has with telecom privatisation in the country, the latest of which being the usurious landline to cellular tariff, the Department of Telecom is feeling greatly left out of the action on the Broadcasting Bill. The Department has questioned the very lack of a basic definition of the word broadcasting in the cabinet note, adding that the Information & Broadcasting Ministry should check with DoT on various points before moving to finalise the bill. Defining in accordance with the International Radio Regulations, DoT has defined broadcasting as a radio communication service, in which the transmissions are intended for direct reception by the public. 

DoT has also pointed out the technical difficulties in implementing the ‘unauthorising’ of a foreign satellite channel that does not acquire a license from the Broadcast Authority. The I&B Ministry plans to go ahead regardless saying that they do not envisage any technical difficulties in implementing this provision, adding that in any case, the provision has to be there and should not be deleted just because there may be some difficulties in its actual operation. 

Will the Small Cable Operator go the Small Video Library Way?

Yes, he would if the Broadcast Bill is approved in its present form. If the bill goes through then the country will be carved up into territories just like the way it has been for the telecom circles. In such a scenario, the small cable operators could well be edged out, as the license fee would leap into crores of rupees. Operators are undergoing a sense of deja vu, as in a not very dissimilar fashion; the Cable TV Regulations Act of 1995 also paved the way for multinationals like Hindujas and Siticable entered the market at the cost of small players. Also proposed in the legislation is draconian fine structure for offences that one could be forgiven for thinking that running a small cable operation is akin to drug trafficking!

The Department of Telecom has also added that the Broadcast Authority should take the consent of the wireless adviser to government of India, before authorising the reception of the signals of any foreign channel under certain terms and conditions including annual payment of authorisation fee as may be determined by the Broadcast Authority. This observation has found concurrence from the I&B Ministry as these are subject to provisos of international agreements and such an authorisation shall not mean relaxation of technical parameters of the satellite networks. 

Media observers feel that that a far better option would be to control downlinking, as practiced in Singapore and other foreign countries. This would be quite enough to enable meeting the real objective of regulating foreign television channels, which is to have a check on programming content. 

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