William Tyndale, a 16th-century Protestant scholar in England, wrote in one of his many widely-circulated texts, “Beware of good intents.” The information & broadcasting ministry’s guidelines for uplinking and downlinking of satellite television channels in India, 2022, directs channels to air at least 30 minutes of content that is of “national importance and social relevance”. The themes include, and are thus not likely limited to, education and spread of literacy, agriculture and rural development, health and family welfare, science and technology, welfare of women, welfare of the weaker sections of society, protection of environment and cultural heritage, and national integration. No one would debate the importance of these themes; indeed, channels should be suo motu airing programming on these. However, the government making such content mandatory for channels (save foreign ones), saying that “the airwaves/frequencies are public property and need to be used in the best interest of the society”, puts broadcasting regulation on slippery terrain and is against market-economy principles.
Channels run by the state-owned broadcaster Prasar Bharati have aired content on such themes since decades—from Krishi Darshan to the many songs on national integration. But, since satellite television came to the Indian market, there has been a mammoth expansion of the breadth and depth of content. The Indian market has also responded well to it, even as Prasar Bharati’s offerings have ceded significant market share. The satellite television boom in India has also ensured that TV remains the preferred medium despite the tectonic shift brought about by cheap data, internet-delivered content and handheld devices. A Boston Consulting Group report from last year shows television still corners the largest share of the Indian media and entertainment market, at an estimated 33-35%, even though this share has somewhat shrunk in the last decade or so. Despite the competition from digital video, TV managed to grow its share in M&E consumption per day, from 3.6 hours in 2018 to 4.3-4.5 hours in 2021. The pool of television subscribers in the country (excluding free DTH) has also grown, from 165-170 million to 175-180 million.
Against such a backdrop, any command-economy measure must be avoided. More so, since the guidelines say “the government may, from time to time, issue general advisory to the channels for telecast of content in national interest, and the channel shall comply with the same.” Keeping the ambit of national interest content, with respect to theme and mandatory air-time, so wide only stokes apprehensions of a growing say of the government in the content of private-channels.
That apart, the digital video space, including private broadcasters’ services on OTT apps, doesn’t seem to be subject to such diktats. Given how digital video competes with TV, the government should not queer the playing field against either player. Bear in mind, digital video continues to enjoy regulation that has a much lighter touch.
Some have argued that, in the current milieu, where TV is playing a role in increasing polarisation and delegitimisation of alternative opinions and view-points, mandatory national-interest content is perhaps desirable in the larger picture. However, it is hard to see how such content resolves the problem of toxic television. Indeed, the problem is better addressed through the regulatory mechanism putting up clear definitions of problematic content and concomitant penalties/regulatory action.