In this age of information explosion, one aspect that is being debated most hotly is the imminent presentation of the proposed Indian Broadcasting Bill before the Indian Parliament during its ongoing budget session. The public opinion in the country is sharply divided over the issue. While one segment is vehemently against any sort of concessions to foreign broadcasters, there is another that favours their presence citing freedom of expression enshrined under article 19(2) of the Indian constitution in support of their arguments.
A baffling Indian reality that has come to stay is the tendency of the political parties to completely reverse their stand on the issue of autonomy to the state-owned electronic media. While in opposition, all political parties swear by the autonomy of Doordarshan and All India Radio. The moment the party comes to power and basks in its new glory of power and authority, it forgets its commitment to the cause of autonomy and takes pleasure in flaunting its newfound muscle. The erstwhile ruling party now in the opposition picks up the thread from where its rival party (now in power) had left it. Thus the game of political volleyball continues and as sceptics fear, is likely to continue. Hopes of a change for the better were raised in the aftermath of the enactment of the Prasar Bharati Act 1990 and the famous Supreme Court Judgment of 2nd Feb 1995 declaring that “air waves or frequencies are public property. They have to be controlled and regulated by a public authority in the interest of the public and to prevent the invasion of their rights”.
Successive regimes reflecting all shades of political opinion have however, chosen to put the proposal on a back burner and the issue continues to stagnate.
Recently there has however been a flurry of activity on this front The (divided) United Front has tailed to reach any internal consensus. Internal differences forced the Union cabinet to refer the proposed bill to a cabinet subcommittee headed by none oilier than the Prime Minister Mr.H.D. Devegowda, comprising ot Mr. C. M. Ibrahim, Minister for Information and Broadcasting, Mr. Rama Kant Khalap, Minister for Law and justice, Mr. Beni Prasad Verma, Minister for Communications and Mr. P. Chidambaram, Union Finance Minister. Tins sub-committee in its recommendations on Fob 18, 1997 okayed the proposed bill with some modifications. The bill listed for being presented before the parliament in the ongoing budget session at serial number 17 will follow the Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Amendment Bill, is listed at serial no. 16.
Parliament is likely to be sharply divided on the following contentious issues:
(a) Whether uplinking permission should be given to foreign/Indian satellites from Indian
(b) Whether the restrictions sought to he imposed on any Government authority, local authority, political party, religious body and/or advertising agencies for obtaining broadcasting licences are justified or not?
(c) Cross media restrictions are proposed in the bill. This means that anybody having a 20% or above stake in any newspaper is barred from obtaining a broadcast licence and vice versa. Whether such restrictions are justified?
Hard Facts To Be Kept In Mind While Deciding - on any Broadcast Legislation in India (1) Satellite and Broadcasting industry is an extremely capital intensive, very much similar to the Telecom industry.
(2) The infrastructure created by the Satellite and Broadcast industry is of national scale and of very basic nature.
(3)Telecom, Broadcasting and Multimedia are in the process of converging worldwide.
(4) The airwaves have been declared as public property by the Indian Supreme Court in its historic judgement of Feb 02, 1995.
(5) Existence of over 70000 legally recognised small cable operators with their ready built infrastructure worth Rs.1800 crores (US $ 550 million) giving employment to over 12 Lakh (1.2 million) personnel countrywide.
(6) Over 56 channels beam into India and most broadcasters are already in joint ventures with foreign companies
(7) Some broadcasters have business interests in
(i) Ground networking
(ii) Print Media
(iii)The recent Telecom tenders have shown the insufficiency of both - experience and capital required to create this infrastructure by the Indian companies on their own. The natural corollary is that foreign technology and equity participation cannot be ignored since Indian companies lack the standing power to withstand long break-even levels.
(iv) Whether the upper limit for foreign equity should be pegged at 25% or should it be as high as 49%?
(v) The quality of programmes and their contents in light of arguments like cultural invasion is likely to be keenly debated in the parliament.
(vi) The Bill proposes to demarcate areas (co-terminus with Telecom circles of the Department of Telecommunications) for the purpose of licensing. The areas will be allotted to the two highest bidders after an auction. How far is it justified to have an auction where small operators would be treated at par with large MSO’s and multinational companies? Is it not a veiled threat to small opertors to pack up ?
(vii) As per the provisions of the proposed bill, no exclusive rights will be permitted for the live telecast of events on Indian soil a’la Mr. Juan Samaranch’s resolve to keep the Olympic games off Pay Television.
(viii) Exemption to unlicensed free to air channels covering news and current affairs with no/ some advertisements (read CNN and BBC) from licensing in light of their unending attempts to portray Jammvi and Kashmir as Indian administered Kashmir and Pakistan occupied Kashmir as Pakistan administered Kashmir.
(ix) Cable television and MMDS (wireless local distribution) are mutually competing fields. How far is it justified to place the two in the same category of broadcast licences in light of the fact that a maximum of only two licences will be granted per Telecom circle?
(x) Is it fair to call the bill progressive and favouring autonomy if the proposed Broadcast Authority is to be headed by a serving government secretary, four of its members will also be secretaries and remaining eleven will be appointed by the government on the recommendations of a select committee (read 1 & B Minister)? In fact there is nothing ‘public’ about this body. It is just another arm of the Government.
(xi) The proposed Broadcasting Authority cannot be impartial considering that the licence fees and other levies will flow to the Consolidated Fund of India while the Authority and its infrastructure will be funded by the Government. Will that not make it susceptible to partiality towards the Government’s favourites ?
(xii) The proposed bill, envisages that the Central Government will assign, in conjunction with the Wireless Advisor, frequencies or bands of frequencies to the Broadcasting Authority. Is the Government ignorant of the fact that this is the work of the International Telecommunications Union (of which India is also a member) and that if every country started interfering in that field, there could be a distinct possibility of mid collisions?
(xiii) The recent Telecom tenders have amply demonstrated that Indian companies lack the experience and capital to create the basic infrastructure required. In other words, foreign technology and equity cannot be ignored considering that only two operators will be permitted in each area (area being co-terminus with the Telecom circles identified by the Department of Telecommunications). It is pertinent to add that there are only twenty Telecom circles in the country. Does it imply that upon the enactment of the proposed legislation, only forty operators will get the licence for operating cable television services in the country’?
Existing Legislation! (1)The Indian Telegraphs Act 1885
(a) Government has the exclusive right to “establish, maintain and work” any broadcast service in the country.
(b) Telegraph means any appliance, signs, signals, instrument, writing images and sounds or intelligence of any nature transmitted by wire, visual or other electronic or magnetic emissions.
(2) The Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act 1990.
(a) Aim : To confer autonomy on Akashvaani and Doordarshan.
(b) Prasar Bharati Corporation to be formed
(c) PBC to be supervised by the Prasar Bharati Board
(d) Parliamentary Committee (15 from Lok Sabha and 7 from Rajya Sabha) to oversee performance.
(e)Establishment of a Broadcasting Council to implement the Act.
(3) The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act 1995
(a) Registration of cable television networks
(b) Programme and Advertisement codes
(c) Maintenance of programme register
(d) Compulsory carriage of at least two DD channels
(e) Use of standard equipment in the cable television networks.
(xiv) Private Telecom services are likely to take a long time to materialise. Since the Government is already providing these services the consumers are not in any hurry. But when the legislation comes into effect, the cable operators will simply close shop. How does the government propose to satisfy the consumers who would be fuming with fury and resenting this vacuum?
Impact on Cable Operators
The fact that cable operators will have to bid against the financial might of the MSO’s and Multi National Corporations and also that only two players will be granted the licence to operate in each area is likely to send most of the small operators packing. With 70000 cable operators being forced to make an exit, a big question mark has arisen over the future of the 12 lakh families whose livelihoods are hinged to cable TV networks. Moreover what will happen to the huge investments made by these 70000 cable operators in their networks in the past seven years. As things stand now, hardware worth Rs.1800 crores will become junk. Should it be dumped into the Indian Ocean?
On the other hand take the example of Delhi. Whereas the combined investment by the 1600-1800 small operators in Delhi is Rs 80 crores, the combined investment of various MSO’s in setting up then headends is a measly Rs.24 crores. With MSOs being reluctant to invest further, it would take decades for the new licence holders to reach the present level to which the country has been cabled up! The spectre of such heavy investments has brought erstwhile foes as bedfellows in a quickly solemnised marriage of convenience. Siti Cable and In Cablenet (Hindujas) have already entered into a strategic alliance in light of the “threats” posed by the proposed bill.
A pertinent question thrown up by the proposed legislation is the likelihood of cross technology tie-ups between say Telecom and Cable TV. It is evident that organisations having expertise in more than one field say Cable TV and Telephony are likely to be more viable than say a company solely involved in Cable TV or Telephony. The possibilities of the Information super-highway with multimedia, cable television, information technology and telecommunications is a positive sign but altogether ignored by the draft bill.
Repeal of The Cable TV Networks (Regulation) Act 1995 is indicative of the government’s utter lack of concern towards the cable operators registered in the Post Offices.
LIKELY IMPACT ON BROADCASTERS
(1) Zee TV
Zee TV will be a prominent beneficiary of the proposal since Subhash Chandra’s Essel group already holds 50% equity and it should not be difficult for them to mobilise additional equity.
However their Siti Cable is likely to run into trouble since the bill clearly bars grant of licences of different categories i.e. non-domestic satellite television and cable TV (read Zee TV and Siti Cable)
(2) Home TV Home TV is in for some very anxious moments since it would be barred from being in non-domestic satellite television (Home TV) and Cable TV (IITL) simultaneously.
Moreover with the Hindustan Times group holding 30% equity, cross media restrictions could also come and spoil their game.
(3) BBC & CNN
They stand to benefit as the proposed legislation seeks to exempt broadcasters from the rigours of obtaining a broadcast licence who
(i) are free to air
(ii) cover news and current affairs
(iii) have no/some advertisement
(iv) adhere to the codes prescribed
(4) STAR TV, Asianet & ATN
Establishing their own DTH platforms could go up in smoke as the proposed-bill clearly rules out grant of licences in more than one category.
(5) Discovery Channel
Mr. Kiran Karnik, Chief Operating Officer of the Discovery Channel has expressed apprehensions of finding an Indian partner who would be willing and able to sustain the losses till the break even stage.
(6) ESPN, Star Sports
The draft bill has clauses safeguarding Doordarshan’s interest where live telecast of sports and internationally important events are concerned. No broadcaster can carry exclusive live coverage of such events without the consent of the Broadcast Authority unless the public service broadcaster has also acquired the domestic rights for the same.