India's broadcasting industry continues to be in turmoil because of unnecessary and incessant intervention by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI).
In the last three years, the industry has gone through distribution and pricing challenges at least twice, along with facing the onslaught of Covid-19 pandemic.
As a result, the flagship channels have become more expensive for the audiences. Not just that, because of TRAI's New Tariff Order (NTO) 2.0, several niche channels are either being shut or facing threat of meeting such a fate in the near future.
A section in the government, especially in the information and broadcasting ministry, feels that there is an immediate need to remove broadcasting from TRAI’s mandate.
A couple of suggestions have been floated to make regulatory arrangements for the industry. One is to set up an industry-specific regulator with some participation from the industry itself. The other one is that if broadcasting cannot be removed from TRAI's ambit, in that case, a sub-committee can be set up to take care of broadcasters. A broadcasting specialist member can head the committee, which can have industry participation.
The information and broadcasting ministry as well as the telecom & IT ministries have got new, decisive and influential ministers recently.
Given that both Anurag Thakur and Ashwini Vaishnaw have a liberal outlook towards the industry and believe in cutting down on unnecessary red tape, it is likely that an inter-ministerial panel can be set up to look into the demands of the broadcasting industry, whose jurisprudence is divided between these two ministries.
Given that the Prime Minister's Office isn't in favour of consumers paying higher prices for flagship channels, an immediate solution can be worked out. Former I&B secretary Amit Khare is now in the Prime Minister's Office as an advisor. Khare is well aware of the tussle that broadcasters have been having with TRAI and how it is not in the interest of the broadcasting industry, DPOs and consumers.
The Indian TV industry is already on a sunset path as more and more consumers are moving towards streaming services. So even if broadcasters lose viewers on TV, a large part of their audiences will move to their respective streaming services as their OTT apps are getting immensely popular in tier 1 and tier 2 towns.
All large broadcasters left YouTube and other intermediaries long back and retained their loyal audience with their respective streaming platforms. From the revenues perspective, broadcasters are monetising their discerning viewers well, whether they are consuming content on TV or streaming apps. The revenues of their streaming services are in the range of Rs 1,000 crore to Rs 2,000 crore.
The increasing number of subscribers of Disney+Hotstar, SonyLiv, Voot and Zee5 are testament to the fact that broadcasters who have made the digital shift may not lose in the long term. However, DPOs may not have a bright future if cord-cutting accelerates.
In the past also, the government has twice suggested that broadcasting should not be regulated under TRAI's umbrella. It is high time for the government to introduce a soft-touch policy regime for the sector.