Regulator, broadcaster, video entrepreneur

BY sevanti ninan| IN Opinion | 11/09/2014
One did not know whether to laugh or cry at the spectacle of mighty broadcasters like Star and Zee confronting the threat posed to them by pesky video entrepreneurs.
SEVANTI NINAN on the current broadcast scenario

Sevanti Ninan

The best way to never actually get media regulation on the ground is to announce a new bright idea every month. India has a flourishing industry of regulatory intent at this point. The number of those chipping in with their contributions is at an all-time high.

Last week a source obligingly leaked to a business paper and a business channel the news that that this government is now contemplating a return to the idea of a Communications Convergence Bill which an earlier BJP government had floated. The department of Telecom is apparently working on an overarching regulator for telecom and broadcasting which could be called the Communications Commission to oversee licensing and regulation and institute an appellate tribunal.

Meanwhile the regulator which does exist today for telecom and broadcasting (and has an appellate tribunal to boot) had just last month released a raft of policy recommendations squarely invading the territories of media ownership and content, at the specific request, it said,  of the information and broadcasting ministry. TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) is the existing regulator and in the normal course it would also look at future converged services providing media through telephony, so what is the new animal for, one wonders. Will it be TRAI with a new name, or will it subsume this body?

The news industry meanwhile —both print and broadcast-- is still fulminating that TRAI is meddling with the viability of an industry it does not understand. This regulator offered last month a long list of people who could not own media, raising the question of who could. It also came up with a formula for regulating cross media ownership.

While releasing its recommendations on media ownership in August, TRAI helpfully suggested that there was need for another regulator, an independent regulator whose contours must be determined by  a commission headed by a retired supreme court judge .

And there is also another would-be meddler stirring the pot. The Law Commission put out a consultation paper some weeks ago listing a whole bunch of issues for consideration: paid news, opinion polls at election time, cross media ownership (something TRAI has already dealt with at great length and after some years of deliberation) media and privacy, trial by media, social media and section 66A of the Information Technology Act 2000. It will hold its consultation later this month, convinced that it too has a role to play in straightening out a messed up and errant media sector. Its consultation paper also offered its wisdom on self regulation which so far has been the only kind of regulation industry is willing to hear of.

While all these various arms of government seek an expanding role for themselves the broadcasting industry is feeling royally aggrieved.  It has convinced itself that all its viability issues stem from regulators doing a bad job, thwarting the industry instead of supporting it. Last week in Mumbai, at an annual industry event called TV.Nxt., the conversations conducted with the big names of broadcasting threw up the following wisdom, much of it articulated by Aroon Purie, proprietor of Living Media and TV Today. Regulatory authorities are destroying the industry by populism. TRAI wants the cable industry to keep prices down, even as subscription income does not come. Broadcasters are still paying carriage fees. It is killing the industry.

TV news has become a terrible problem because distribution costs are high. Even as breaking news is not any more on TV. It has shifted to the mobile. Purie actually thought there was a very sinister design to keep TV content unevolved. There were vested interests between cable operators and the regulator he said. He then fulminated over the newly pronounced cross media regulations. Was TRAI living in some other age? Coming up with concepts like cross media and share of voice when the platform had shifted to handheld and anything could be consumed anywhere?

Much of the focus at this meet was on how broadcasters should deal with the changing models of delivery. One did not know whether to laugh or cry at the spectacle of mighty broadcasters like Star and Zee confronting the threat posed to them by pesky video entrepreneurs. There was Star saying the video revolution was being spun off the broadcaster’s content, the 14000 hours of content that Star produces every year. But media industry analysts were pronouncing that the new big thing in the media universe is all those low cost zany videos notching up views in millions. A whole session was devoted to the unlikely heroes of these, including Anurabh Kumar of video channel called The Viral Fever. 

But are such issues on any would-be regulator’s radar? TRAI’s big chief was on record last month saying he was not getting into looking at internet base media properties because its reach in India was still so small.

The emerging industry wisdom however is that there is enough action on YouTube now to give the TV industry pause. But if the heavy arms of government and law were to even contemplate regulation there, they would simply be spoofed out of existence.

Reprinted from Mint, September 11, 2014

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