Sunday, April 07, 2013

Government hints at broadcasting reform agenda
I&B minister raises prospect of independent broadcasting authority, says govt may be forced to set up ratings system
~~Shuchi Bansal
New Delhi: Information and broadcasting (I&B) minister Manish Tewari on Friday raised the prospect of an independent broadcasting authority and said the government may be forced to set up a ratings system unless the industry took steps to put in place a credible method of ranking television programmes, in a series of statements that appeared to set out a comprehensive agenda of reform for the sector.
Another significant policy point, which may have caused some disquiet among sections of the industry, was made by information secretary Uday Kumar Verma, who said the industry will have to come to grips with the issue of content regulation given the explosion in the number of channels. India is one of the few countries that doesn’t have such a content regulator, he added.
“The broadcasting universe has grown and expanded in such an exponential manner that a time has come, on the techno-commercial side, for a separate broadcasting authority,” Tewari said in his keynote address on Friday at a meeting of the expert committee on restructuring Prasar Bharati in New Delhi. “Broadcasting was never supposed to be part of the Trai (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) remit.”
Prasar Bharati is the state-run organization that runs Doordarshan and All India Radio.
The references by Tewari and Verma are to regulators of two kinds. One covers technical and commercial aspects currently overseen by Trai, and the other refers to content.
Referring to the proliferation of television channels, which numbered more than 800 currently, and the growth of new media including social media, Tewari said there was a need for an independent regulator in the media space. However, he clearly pointed out that the government had no intention of putting a “regulator on content in the statutory space”, which would have abated some of the concern regarding censorship, on which the record of the government hasn’t been unblemished.
The expert committee chaired by Sam Pitroda, adviser to the Prime Minister on public information infrastructure and innovations, was constituted by the I&B ministry in January to review the institutional framework of Prasar Bharati, including its relationship with the government, its role as a public broadcaster, and the technical upgrade of the organization.
Prasar Bharati’s role as a public broadcaster is the subject of intense debate amid declining viewership and advertising revenue, and an inability to engage with its role in raising knowledge levels, analysts said.
Verma said that if the broadcasting sector does not put together an independent television rating system soon, the government will intervene and offer viewership data on its own.
“We have given a clear signal to the broadcasting and advertising industries that they have an independent television rating system in place by the middle of next year, failing which the government will not hesitate in asking Trai—in fact we have already made a reference to the authority—to make sure that there are adequate guidelines in place for any TRP (television rating point) generating entity,” said Verma, addressing the members of the 11 expert groups studying different aspects of Prasar Bharati.
Tewari pointed out that the broadcasting industry was dragging its feet over the Broadcast Audience Research Council (BARC), the body jointly formed by television channels with the advertising industry for creating a new television viewership mapping system. BARC was proposed some years ago by channel owners unhappy with the rating system put in place by TAM Media Research, a joint venture between Nielsen (India) Pvt. Ltd and Kantar Market Research.
The issue has led to a squabble between at least one broadcaster and TAM. The start of digitization in 2012 also led to a suspension in the ratings as broadcasters were concerned the numbers would be too low as the switch-over took place and until the process stabilized.
“One of the benefits of digitization (of cable television networks) would be the spin-offs or technological innovations possible,” the minister said. “I believe that at Rs.25 extra per (set-top) box or maybe lower, you would be able to have real-time data on who is watching what at what point in homes with set-top boxes. There is no need for the 8,000 meters then.”
This real-time data tracking device will piggyback on set-top boxes and monitor viewership habits, but broadcasters didn’t warm up to the idea, he said.
“They thought we would use this information. We don’t want this data. We are prepared, through a statutory regulation process, to hand it over to BARC so that it has an empirical model available whereby it can measure the industry,” he added.
The government hopes to digitize television viewing in the entire country in the next two years, in line with the law passed by Parliament in December 2011. Verma said that digitization would unfold a huge opportunity for Doordarshan, whose channels were often blacked out by cable operators in analogue mode. Such anomalies can be tracked and caught in digital cable networks.
He spoke of the need for content regulation in view of the 450 private news channels airing news.
“There is a big concern about any broadcaster being very independent,” he said. The regulation of media, raised both by the government and the judiciary in the recent past, has been greeted with suspicion by the media given that most news organizations have been carrying stories critical of government policies and exposing corruption in the system.
“Regulation seems to be an undesirable word. But let me tell you that there is no other country except India that does not have a regulator,” Verma said. He cited the UK phone-tapping scandal that led to media baron Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid News of the World being forced to shut down. After the incident, the UK media regulator’s powers have been made “more effective through a royal charter”, he said.
“Whatever may be the system of regulation, self-regulation, very independent regulation, or regulation supported by good and effective defamation laws—all these need to be brought into focus as far as broadcasting sector is concerned,” said Verma.
The secretary suggested that the expert committee should consider creating a special purpose vehicle for Doordarshan’s direct-to-home operations to give that business more flexibility given its potential. He suggested a similar structure for the transmission functions of Prasar Bharati.
Tewari, meanwhile, raised the question whether the government’s arm’s length relationship with Prasar Bharati was justified considering it spends Rs.1,885 crore a year on the organization.
“I am supposed to be their recruiting authority, disciplining authority, sign for their tours abroad, and then expected to have an arm’s length relationship. This needs to be fixed,” he said.
Tewari said that if the country needed a public broadcaster, it should be accountable to Parliament. “Then allow me the liberty for a full-spectrum communications agency—print, broadcasting, online, which lets me put my views across since the government spends huge sums in development schemes that need to be communicated,” he said.
Pitroda said India’s 900 million mobile phone screens have given a different meaning to broadcasting.
“We are a connected billion,” he said. He urged the committee members to come back with a simple set of recommendations. “We should be concerned with customer versus citizen, broadcasting versus interaction, nation building versus company building.”
Pitroda said the terms of reference for the committee were to do with relevant content and how to blend this with the larger goal of nation building.

He said that human resources were a big challenge at Prasar Bharati. “Tough decisions will need to be taken. We will have to put pressure on the system to get things done,” Pitroda added.

Courtesy: Live Mint