Linear TV broadcasters in India have been looking at the freedom streaming services have — for now — and their reaction is clear: we want that too. “For someone like us who come from a linear TV background [as opposed to on-demand online streaming], we don’t want new technologies like streaming or OTT to be regulated to the extent that we are,” said Vynsley Fernandes, CEO of IndusInd Media & Communications, a cable TV operator.

“We’re saying quite the opposite; there is a benchmark that is set by a new generation who doesn’t want to see regulations beyond the current level. We’re saying that’s fine; but please look at the linear industry and see if there’s a way to up the regulation parameter,” Fernanded said, at an online session on broadcast regulations conducted during FICCI e-FRAMES 2020 on Wednesday.

Relaxing TV regulations to digital levels

In India, TV is regulated by the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995, a law that was passed in the year when India had its first private live TV broadcast. But the industry largely self-regulates, with institutions like the Indian Broadcasting Foundation and the Broadcast Content Complaints Committee, which fields viewer complaints against TV channels. Even with this self-regulation, though, channels self-censor and, one executive said, field an inordinate number of complaints.

“Unfortunately in India, because it’s a country of complaints and bans, everybody wants a say in what content you’re running,” said Avinash Pandey, CEO of the ABP Network. “The largest department if you go to any news channel is the department that deals with the complaints. Because we have created a self-regulatory body, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority, we receive a complaint, we say, no, we did not mean that.” Even changing logos or channel names requires clearances from the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Pandey pointed out.

Price controls and regulatory overreach

Executives complained about what they described as overregulation by TRAI, like capping how much a TV channel can charge a cable operator, and how much a consumer can be charged by cable operators. These restrictions, Pandey argued, drove channels’ over-reliance on ad revenue, which Disney APAC chairman Uday Shankar on Tuesday said was one of the biggest failings of the media and entertainment industry in India.

“If you do micromanagement of the sector, what rate you sell your channel at, what content you should run… There are laws which arbitrarily let clearance from the Home Ministry to be canceled,” Pandey said, referring to the Home Ministry’s occasional practice and power of cancelling channels’ authorisations to broadcast their content. “It’s not a food subsidy stamp,” Pandey exclaimed on price controls. “You don’t do it for any other industry, why do you do it for television?”

“When TRAI became broadcasting regulator in 2003, it brought order” to the industry, said Vanita Kohli-Khandekar, an author and columnist who writes on the media and entertainment industry in India. “Having said that, the first big mistake was setting the precedent with pricing regulation in 2004. The moment you did that, you handed a huge micromanagement tool to the regulator who was not going to let go.”

“We may be among the most regulated broadcasting sectors in the world. India by far is the most regulated,” said Megha Tata, Managing Director for South Asia at Discovery Asia Pacific. “If we need to invest heavily in creating high quality and different content for our consumers, we need to be given that ecosystem and environment so that we’re able to deliver that.”

MediaNama’s take: It is interesting to note that broadcast executives aren’t fuming at the freedom streaming services have, demanding an end to their liberty. Telecom operators have often tried to undermine internet calling apps that once threatened their voice call revenue by urging them to be regulated too, without much success. Broadcasters’ comparatively restrained approach in levelling the playing field is perhaps explained by just how small the streaming business is right now. As Tata pointed out, “We have over 100 million homes without televisions in India, so linear is going to stay in this country, it’s not going to go away.”