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Private sports broadcasters in India face government challenge

The introduction of the "must carry" provision mandating that all Doordarshan channels be carried by cable operators and DTH operators has made life tougher.

Private sports broadcasters in India face government challenge
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Private sports broadcasters in India are headed towards an uncertain future thanks to the governmental pressure due to which they are mandated to share sporting events of national importance with Prasar Bharati.

This isn`t all. The introduction of the "must carry" provision mandating that all Doordarshan channels be carried by cable operators and DTH operators has made life tougher. If this continues, broadcasters will be forced to think twice before bidding for exclusive rights of sporting events.

All private Distribution Platform Operators (DPOs) such as Tata Sky, Dish TV, Hathway etc. are forced to show the 24 DD channels after the Information and Broadcasting Ministry issued a notification in 2013 asking cable operators to "must carry" those channels. In 2014, it further asked the DTH plaforms to compulsorily carry the Doordarshan channels.

But sadly, this isn`t the idea behind the whole Sports Act that was passed in 2007. According to that, the idea was to provide access to maximum viewers and listeners of sporting events of national importance so that even those who don`t have access to cable television aren`t deprived of such events.

In the present scenario, the viewer can actually pay for the basic cable service and get to witness the exclusive sporting events as private broadcasters like Star, Sony and DSports must share their content with DD as it is of national interest. So, with DD being shown for free by the cable operators, the viewers don`t need to pay extra for the different Star or Sony packages which come for a price and aren`t free to air.

While Prasar Bharati doesn`t bid for any of the sporting events, this act of getting the private sports broadcasters to share their content has created a scenario which indirectly affects the economics of sports broadcasting in the country.

To make things simple, if the private broadcasters stop bidding and investing in sporting events, it is the common man who will face the brunt and the future of sports and sportsperson in the country will be under threat.

The Information and Broadcasting Ministry wanted to amend the Sports Broadcasting Signals Bill in 2018 and the amendment said: "No content rights owner or holder and no television or radio broadcasting service provider shall carry a live television broadcast on any cable and/or direct-to-home network and/or IPTV and/or terrestrial network or radio commentary broadcast in lndia of sporting events of national importance, unless it simultaneously shares the live broadcasting signal, without its advertisements, with the Prasar Bharati to enable them to re-transmit the same on its own terrestrial network and Direct-to-Home network and on other television distribution in such manner and on such terms and conditions as may be specified."

But the move didn`t get the backing of sports federations while boxing champion Mary Kom provided a fair idea on how it would be detrimental for sports and sportspersons in the country.

"The income of sports federations will reduce because broadcasters affected by the illogical amendment will also reconsider their decision to invest in Indian sports. Also, sponsors of sports federations and players will either get cancelled or will decrease since their visibility through sports channels will become less," she had written to the Ministry in December 2018.

In fact, the Supreme Court had also said that the Sports Act in its current state is perfectly fine and didn`t need any amendment. It also said that while there have been claims that the sports channels are highly priced, it isn`t the reality. The court further added that sporting events of national importance available on Prasar Bharati channels on private distribution platforms will not be free of cost which is against the objective of the Sports Act.

Another major area of concern for sports broadcasters has been the competitions mentioned under the sporting events of national importance. Certain sections in the broadcasting business believe that listing of events should be done with consultation with the broadcasters, but the ministry hasn`t done that and they fear that it could be a case of goalpost shifting the moment any event is seen as financially profitable.

Hopefully the pitch battle will end with the interest of sportspersons getting priority rather than the Information and Broadcasting Ministry.