A speed bump for foreign channels
The fairly major piece of media regulation introduced recently a downlinking policy announcement governing foreign satellite channels in the country is a sweeping move to bring them within the ambit of Indian law.
"The other achievement is to make foreign television channels in India answerable for their content."
SELF-SERVING?: Is it a move to protect Doordarshan?
WHEN the Government finally announced a fairly major piece of media regulation, the media itself was so excited at the arrival of Abu Salem and Monica Bedi, that it barely noticed. But here at last after years of ineffectual pronouncements was a downlinking policy announcement governing foreign satellite channels in the country, intended to make them register, follow minimum eligibility criteria, and become answerable to the laws of this land. It seeks to end the free-for-all that the satellite and cable universe has been for a decade and a half.
Though there is no explicit licensing regime as yet, this is a sweeping move to bring foreign satellite channels within the ambit of Indian law. All these channels will now have to register in India, they will confirm to a minimum specified net worth, they will have to incorporate Indian companies through which they can downlink, and will have to facilitate monitoring of what they telecast. All this in six months from the date of notification.
The new regulation is unabashedly self-serving: the major objective is to create a playing field favourable to Doordarshan which depends heavily on cricket revenues for its earnings. "The sports channels/sports rights management companies having TV broadcasting rights shall with immediate effect share their feed with Prasar Bharati for national and international sporting events of national importance, held in India or abroad, for terrestrial transmission and Direct To Home (DTH) broadcasting (free-to-air) ... In case of cricket events, these shall include all matches featuring India and the finals and semi-finals of international competitions." This must surely be a rare example of a national government bringing its weight to bear on sports telecasts.
Answerable for substance
The other achievement is to make foreign television channels in India answerable for their content. Once registered, they will have to comply with the Programme and Advertising Code prescribed under the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995. This sounds more important than it is: the Cable Act was already in force, and had the power to stop cable operators from showing channels that violated these codes. The central and state governments simply failed to enforce it.
The downlinking rules come down heavy on international news channels, and in the short term they will affect the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) more than others. It does India-specific programming, and gets a fair amount of Indian advertising. Both are disallowed under the new guidelines that wants foreign news channels to be "standard international channels". In the long term, the BBC is bound to do what it takes to operate profitably from here: either register an Indian company and uplink from India or tie up with an Indian broadcaster as Cable News Network (CNN) has just done with Rajdeep Sardesai's new channel for CNBC, India Broadcast News (IBN).
It is possible to regulate, and make no difference at all to major offenders. The shortcomings of news channels in India have little to do with foreign origins. After Star News came under new Indian regulations and restructured to have 74 per cent Indian ownership, it has hardly become an exemplary news channel. It is even more unabashedly sensational and ratings driven than before.
Antecedents of channels
And while Mr. Jaipal Reddy has been on record as saying that the downlinking guidelines will provide a mechanism to check the antecedents and to verify legitimacy of the owners/distributors of the channels being downlinked in India, the fact is that the antecedents and legitimacy of foreign news organisations that beam into India are far less mysterious than those of some of the new Indian news channels which have made their appearance. Who owns S-1 and Total? Apparently one is owned by a builder and another by a former chief minister of Haryana. Who actually funds India TV? Rajat Sharma had declined to name his investors when he launched it. I would imagine the agendas of channels like CNN and BBC are fairly transparent. It is those of some Indian news channels that are not. So much for the new policy.
Tailpiece: Militancy has not disappeared from Kashmir, but it is certainly less pervasive than it used to be, and the local people aspire to normalcy. But Doordarshan's Kashir channel is still living in a time warp. If you happen to be in Srinagar and tune in mid morning and you get a kajal-ed, skull-capped baddie, sticking his gun at poor innocents, the old "fight militancy" low-budget tele-fiction of yore. Such programmes should be retired and replaced with something less simplistic.
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