DD Freedish e-auction: A free run of the monopolistic and abusive conduct by Prasar Bharati

From base price to e-auction methodology to limiting the number of slots at its whims and fancies, the actions of the pubcaster are nowhere near the Modi government's style of functioning

Niraj Sharma
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DD Freedish e-auction: A free run of the monopolistic and abusive conduct by Prasar Bharati

Having failed to garner significant interest from advertisers after private broadcasters captured the marketplace, government-funded pubcaster Prasar Bharati is making up for losses by exploiting the weakness in the sector instead.

A case in point is the e-auction of DD Freedish slots which is evidently unjust and exploitative in nature, more so after a change in methodology from 2023.

While Prasar Bharati puts the argument forward that every organisation has the full right to price its product in a free market, its argument does not hold any validity because DD Freedish has created a monopoly being the only free DTH platform.

Whichever broadcasters have any business interest in the “free” audience, be it for ad revenue or TRPs, have no choice but to buy the slots at any price set by the pubcaster even in the absence of any robust data to back up the number of boxes seeded on the ground.

Before coming to the blatantly exploitative e-auction methodology, let us take a look at the base price which spells out the monopolistic behaviour of Prasar Bharati, apparently trying to show that it needs lesser funds from the government.

It had set a base price of Rs 15 crore for Bucket A+ when its ‘estimated’ reach was similar to the reach of Tata Play (earlier known as Tata Sky).

Even today, the reach of DD Freedish remains an 'estimated' data with no exact figure because it is not addressable, not accountable and not measured. Prasar Bharati doesn’t even know who are the manufacturers, what’s the basic minimum standards required for the Set Top Boxes and quality of service obligations by the STB manufacturers.

There could be new subscribers of DD Freedish or those upgrading to other technologies or platforms, just like the drop in the reach and viewership of “Pay” platforms, increased broadband penetration could have hampered the growth of DD Freedish as well.

But that will remain unknown unless there is a census which is pending from 2021.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting can ask the Statistics Ministry to include a couple of questions in the upcoming census vis-à-vis broadcasting, such as:

1. How many households have DD Freedish/cable/DTH/IPTV connections?

2. How many households have multiple TV connections?

3. How many households have smart and/or connected TVs?

4. How many households have broadband connections?

It is pertinent to mention that BARC India too continues to measure and extrapolate the numbers for DD Freedish based on estimates.

Despite offering a free audience having the lowest buying power, Prasar Bharat put a base price of Rs 15 crore, at least 3X of what Tata Play charges from the broadcasters.

How did the pubcaster arrive at that cost? There is no justification except for the fact that it is the monopoly and the sector’s only vertically integrated outlet.

Remember that the e-auction is a premium for the pubcaster over and above that base price.

On what basis did Prasar Bharati decide to put a base price of Rs 7 crore for the Hindi news channels?

If the logic behind differential base pricing among different genres was revenues, are the news broadcasters earning half of what the general entertainment broadcasters earn?

It is necessary to make it clear that news broadcasters earn 1/5th to 1/10th of GECs.

Again, if the logic behind differential base pricing among different genres was revenues, how does the pubcaster take pride in selling slots to all the broadcasters of all the genres against a similar price?

Once again, if the logic behind differential base pricing among different genres was revenues, how does a top news broadcaster earning Rs 600 crore get the slot at a similar price paid by another news broadcaster earning just Rs 80 crore?

Why doesn’t Prasar Bharati come with a revenue-linked pricing model like BARC India, the audience measurement body registered under the I&B Ministry?

Now, let us take a look at how Prasar Bharati is going beyond the revised e-auction methodology to exploit the broadcasters.

It is doing so by closing the annual e-auction at its whims and fancies hiding behind limited capacity.

Prasar Bharati has claimed that it has the capacity to carry 84 private channels besides Doordarshan’s channels. However, it has been shifting two or three DD channels to MPEG-4 slots to earn more revenues from MPEG-2 slots.

Even in that case, there is no justification as to why the pubcaster closed the annual e-auction held in mid-March last year after selling only 65 channels. Wasn’t it to artificially inflate the demand and pricing for the 2024-25 cycle?

However, Prasar Bharat later quietly sold more than a dozen slots and still carries 75 private channels.

In effect, there could be 84 private channels on DD Freedish but it carries 75 private channels as of date but it closes annual e-auction at 65.

The opaque system will continue to exist in the name of e-auction even as the Modi government boasts of transparent governance and creating a level-playing field for Indian businesses.

Narendra Modi DD Freedish Prasar Bharati DD Freedish e-auction