Time for a new regulator for media?

Is it time to talk about an independent-of-the-government media regulator? Over five days last week at the industry’s biggest event, the Fe­deration of Indian Chambers of Co­m­merce and Industry (FICCI) Fra­mes, the picture was bleak. “If I look at the full year 2020, we will see the sector shrink from $20 billion to $15 billion. It is estimated that around 15 per cent to 20 per cent of our workforce may lose their jo­bs,” said Sanjay Gupta, country manager and vice-president, Google India, and chairman, FICCI media and entertainment (M&E) committee. That means of the five million Indians employed in M&E, about a million will lose their jobs.

FICCI Frames had two recurring the­mes — the effects of the ongoing pande­mic coming quick on the heels of an economic slowdown, and regulation. The two are linked. In a year when everythi­ng is knocking the wind out of India’s Rs 1,82,200-crore M&E business, what it needs more than anything else is regulatory support. If not direct budgetary support, then at least making it easier to run a media business would be a huge help. An inability to do that has been the single biggest failing of media regulation in India in the last 25-odd years.

The mess in the Rs 79,000-crore television industry, the largest part of M&E, is a case in point. Since 2004, the Te­le­com Regulatory Authority of India or Trai, also the broadcast regulator, has controlled TV pricing in increasingly hair-splitting detail. This has stunted programming innovation and capped pay revenues even while streaming continues to grow. In May this year came recommendations that could quasi-na­tionalise the industry-owned ratings bo­dy. If these go through, ad revenues will be squeezed as well. Much before the pandemic hit, TV revenues were slowing down. Now they will fall by 25-40 per cent.

Conversely, every time regulators ha­ve stepped forward to facilitate, the business has flowered. One simple decision, to give films “industry” status in 2000, led to a growth of over six times in revenue. But such facilitative moves are a flash in the pan. The last one was cable digitisation in 2011. On most days, M&E is either ignored or treated like the du­mb blonde of the economy or slapped on the hand for a controversial film or a show. The lens through which any government looks at M&E is co­n­tent/­in­flu­ence/control not as an industry that ge­nerates taxes and jobs. The result? The world’s second largest TV market, its largest film producing country or the fastest growing internet market remains pathetically under-monetised.

The overarching body that regulates M&E, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, operates through arms such as the Trai, Central Board of Film Certification among others. Then there are several self-regulation bodies like the Press Council of India et al.

Is it time to put everything — print, TV, film, music, radio, digital et al — un­der one independent-of-the governme­nt regulator. A body with a bird’s eye vi­ew would see that tariff controls have to go if TV is to survive and grow, or that permissions need to be simplified if small towns are to see a multiplex revolution too. Can a body like the UK’s co­m­mu­ni­cations regulator Ofcom, created through an Act of parliament with an independent budget and board, work? Most media lawyers don’t think so. “There are enough laws in this country,” says Saikrishna Rajagopal, managing partner, Saikrishna & Associates. He po­ints to the In­for­ma­tion Technology Act, TDSAT, Indian Pe­nal Code, Cable Act et al. The issue is executing these.

And that requires the industry and government to join hands. The Ofcom board has a public-private blend that ensures that neither public broadcasters such as BBC nor private ones like Sky control the agenda. One of the things that kept coming up during FICCI Fra­mes was that the bureaucrat-packed Trai lacked people from the industry.

Abhinav Shrivastava, counsel, Law­NK, says, “The point of a regulator is to force the market on a particular path. If the core principles that need regulating — state sovereignty, freedom of expression, individual rights et al — are de­fi­ned, then self-regulation by market fo­r­ces, along with the government works.” He points to the Advertising Standards Council of India as one example of a nimble, competent body.

Almost every senior industry person I have spoken to points to two things. One, no government will want to give up control. There is nothing called “in­de­pendent”. Two, with all the other acts and bodies already floating, it will be­come just one more pain point to deal with.  

At FICCI Frames most government spokespersons used the words “light to­uch” regulation. Some advocated self-regulation. Clearly some wise heads still prevail. But if M&E has to get out of the degrowth abyss it is staring at, it needs much more.

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