TRAI out to bell the cat called DD Freedish but will it succeed?

The analogue-type system in an era of hyper-personalization will continue to harm the industry, especially when DD Freedish is accused of promoting content piracy including live sports incurring huge losses to the ‘same’ top broadcasters

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New Delhi: The broadcast industry long ago tagged DD Freedish, once called the biggest disruptor, as the biggest destroyer as it carried ‘zero’ accountability whatsoever. on many occasions raised the concerns expressed by the industry stakeholders. Be it distributors or broadcasters, both sides had a fair share of complaints from the free-to-air platform owned by Prasar Bharati.

While distribution platform operators (DPOs) questioned why a channel was masquerading as a pay channel if it is available as a free-to-air channel on DD Freedish, broadcasters and advertisers were never able to establish the return on investment as Prasar Bharati never knew its subscriber count (except for some industry estimates).

The regulator was instrumental in making the distribution (cable/DTH/IPTV) addressable across the country by implementing DAS in three phases while leaving DD Freedish unaddressed until it became the elephant in the room.

Under PD Vaghela’s leadership, the regulator finally decided to address the elephant in the room on both counts - FTA and addressability.

He was the first top official to point out publicly at FICCI-Frames in May 2023 when he said that DD Freedish had been creating problems for the broadcast sector.

“While Prasar Bharati is happy with the huge revenue through the auction of slots of DD Freedish, it is creating a problem. Both MSOs and DTH operators have to pay for a channel but on the other hand, the channels are paying huge amounts to the government. So, there is an anomaly and that is required to be handled,” he said.

A year later, TRAI on Monday amended its tariff order (NTO) stating that a pay channel available at no subscription fee on DD Freedish has to be declared free-to-air by the broadcaster of the channel for all the addressable distribution platforms also so as to have a level playing field.

It was a case in the beginning but the top broadcasters found a loophole in the regulations and continued to keep a channel both FTA and Pay.

As a result, the second-rung general entertainment channels from the top broadcasters – Star Utsav, Zee Anmol, Colors Rishtey and Sony Pal – kept coming on DD Freedish and leaving the platform under pressure from DPOs.

Working on the broadcasters’ complaint, the regulator floated a suo-motto consultation paper followed by the recommendations released on Monday about the upgradation of DD Freedish to an addressable system. Usually, TRAI floats consultation papers on certain references from the government.

“Since the platform is non-addressable, in terms of subscribers, no authentic data is available for DD Freedish viewership. Different industry reports reflect different numbers of viewers,” the TRAI recommendation stated.

TRAI highlighted that there is no effective mechanism to identify and verify the number of subscribers accessing DD Freedish services.

Implementing addressability would allow for accurate tracking and verification of subscriber numbers. Addressability would provide a breakthrough to resolve the current inconsistencies by providing a reliable count of households using the DD Freedish service.

TRAI emphasised the need for addressable systems to be adopted by DD Freedish in a time-bound manner with a defined sunset date. The regulator further highlighted that Prasar Bharati needs to replace the existing non-addressable STBs at consumer premises with addressable STBs.

The transition involves technical upgrades, including the deployment of a Conditional Access System (CAS) module for encryption, and a Subscriber Management System (SMS) to maintain accurate records of subscribers.

The regulator added that to enable the transition for the public service broadcaster, requisite exemptions in TRAI’s Regulations will be examined and notified, if required, to facilitate the continuation of free television services by the public service broadcaster, after the government’s administrative decision on migrating DD Freedish to an addressable system.

The TRAI further recommended Prasar Bharti adopt interoperable STBs for DD Freedish to ease the transition from operator-based STBs to interoperable STBs. The move would further empower the consumers’ choice.

Additionally, the recommendations included that the signals of permitted satellite television channels of the private broadcasters available on the platform of ‘DD Freedish’ should be encrypted before uplinking.

Moreover, signals of other television channels including educational channels of the Government, Doordarshan channels and radio channels of Prasar Bharati may continue to be uplinked unencrypted.

The recommendation came on the back of an observation made by the TRAI.

“The Authority has been informed that certain operators utilise the unencrypted feed from DD Freedish connections and re-transmit these signals to their customers, charging a fee determined by the operator. Since, there is no check mechanism deployed by DD Freedish, a certain set of customers get these pirated channels at their premises,” stated the recommendation.

However, Prasar Bharti along with a few broadcasters submitted that DD Freedish is a free-to-air, non-addressable system and the regulatory framework of 2017 does not apply to DD Freedish. Furthermore, they added that upgrading DD Freedish to an addressable system would incur huge costs.

While there is no reward for guessing who those few broadcasters are, the transition would indeed incur a huge cost.

But the analogue-type system in an era of hyper-personalization will continue to harm the industry, especially when DD Freedish is accused of promoting content piracy including live sports incurring huge losses to the ‘same’ top broadcasters.

TRAI has finally rung the bell and left it to the govt to bell the cat.

Prasar Bharati TRAI DD Freedish DD Freedish viewers Telecom Regulatory Authority of India DD Freedish auction