Beyond breaking news: Getting TV news content regulation right

October 28, 2020 7:00 AM

What is needed is rationalised channel pricing, improved rating and a credible, self-regulatory mechanism. And this, in turn, requires broadcasters, Trai and the I&B ministry to get their act together

Just last week, the Supreme Court turned down the government’s appeal against an arbitration that Vedanta-Videocon won – the two were awarded $476 million – way back in January 2011!The apex court will, no doubt, hear arguments about the efficacy of the current content regulation mechanism in the ongoing petition.

By Uday Kumar Varma

The news broadcasting sector is in turmoil. If the debate following the petition against Sudarshan TV wasn’t enough, the controversy about TRP rigging has split news broadcasters. The News Broadcasters Association (NBA) already stood fragmented with breakaway channels setting up a rival body—the News Broadcasters Federation (NBF). To add insult to injury, the NBF now has also set up its content regulatory authority with a separate code. The breaking news today is all about ‘breaking’ news.

The apex court will, no doubt, hear arguments about the efficacy of the current content regulation mechanism in the ongoing petition. Uppermost in its mind is likely to be the Constitutional safeguard available in Article 19(1)(a) and the form of regulation that will pass the test of reasonable restrictions. Yet, the judiciary will find it difficult to define terms of appropriate content. While it can intervene if content stands in violation of fundamental rights or decide whether content restrictions are reasonable or not, the judiciary cannot dictate content regularly. A more workable solution is needed.

While the SC’s judgment may contain guidelines to pave the way for healthy content on TV, an understanding between the broadcasters, Trai and the I&B ministry (MI&B) will result in a better regulatory regime. Coordinated consensus will go a long way in improving the state of content and its regulation.

The broadcasters, in 2011, together set up the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council (BCCC) that evolved its programme code and was accepted voluntarily. Likewise, news broadcasters set up their complaint redressal mechanism, the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) in 2008.

The government retained its powers derived from legislation to control content through the Cable Network Regulation Act, 1993. Thus, content regulation by both broadcasters and government co-existed (and still does). In fact, MI&B, over time, referred more and more complaints received by it to the BCCC and NBSA. It implicitly conceded regulation space to broadcasters but did not formally recognise self-regulatory bodies or their code.

The problems with this lack of formal recognition became apparent in the wake of current developments. Dissatisfied parties walked out of an existing, functional self-regulatory framework, a happenstance that could have been avoided if the MI&B’s tacit ceding of regulatory territory to the industry had been legitimised by an executive decree or even by a memorandum of mutual understanding.

Notwithstanding the split, NBSA had been in existence for the last twelve years and BCCC for nine. This is sufficient time for MI&B to be convinced of their good track record and to concede that self-regulation has worked well. The current developments underline an urgent need for MI&B to take the lead in bringing all parties to the table to create a consensus on formally recognising the broadcasters’ codes and their enforcement structures. It will ensure they do not digress from the limits set by self-regulation. This will also reduce instances where the SC is called in to adjudicate. MI&B must exercise its prerogative to engage all broadcasters in constructive dialogue and conclude a regulatory regime that is fair, representative and rule-based.

Trai, by its New Tariff Order, 2020 almost froze subscription tariffs, prescribed prices for each channel, and put a cap on bouquets. It took away from broadcasters the liberty to use market determination to price their channels, foreclosing any possibility of channels becoming less dependent on advertising revenue. Channels now get over 70% of their revenue from advertising. Advertisers place advertisements based on a channel’s TRP ratings. Every channel is in a mindless race to increase TRP.

This inevitably has led to a preference for content that is alluring, base and crude, addressing the highest common emotions like violence, crime and scandal. Trai’s well-intentioned yet ill-conceived channel pricing regime has created a compulsion among channels to curate sensational content. There is, therefore, a strong case to rationalise channel pricing that will prevent channels from sheltering behind the argument that their survival is dependent on advertising revenue. Trai should reconsider its NTO and instead engage broadcasters directly and reach common ground on a fair and reasonable channel pricing mechanism.

Nothing in recent broadcasting history has generated such heated debate and open acrimony as allegations of TRP rigging. Historically, TRPs were first generated by AC Nielsen. In 2012, broadcasters and advertisers set up BARC to provide ratings. Now entirely in the domain of broadcasters, this system seemed to carry better credibility till the Mumbai Police shattered its infallibility by bringing alleged riggings to light.

Trai, in July 2020, recommended strengthening of this system by an increase in ‘people meters’ and wider representation in the governing structure of BARC. Its recommendation—BARC widens and deepens its rating methodology and improves transparency—should be acted upon immediately. Trai should also engage broadcasters to look for alternative technologies that capture actual viewing statistically relatable to the total number of viewers. A sensible, reliable and statistically sound rating system will remove many kinks in the process and will have a significant impact on content creation. Better content will mean higher quality, lesser controversy and fewer litigations.

The current crisis can be addressed, provided MI&B, Trai and broadcasters get their act together. With rationalised channel pricing, an improved rating regime and a vibrant, credible and rule-based self-regulatory mechanism, the existing system can evolve not just to reduce judicial intervention, but also avoid controversy and embarrassment in the form that it faces today.

(The author is Former secretary, Information and Broadcasting and MSME)

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