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Thursday, November 13, 2014

Priorities for Mr Jaitley


FIRST PUBLISHED: THU, NOV 13 2014. 12 37 AM IST, Sevanti Ninan

Arun Jaitley opened up FM broadcasting in 2000, now it is time for him to open up radio to news 

We suddenly have a new part-time information and broadcasting (I&B) minister, a new minister of state, a new chairperson for Prasar Bharati, and a new joint secretary for broadcasting at the ministry as well. But new beginnings are helpful only if the right issues are on the table. Arun Jaitley kicked off his second stint in I&B by chairing a meeting with members of the parliamentary consultative committee attached to the ministry. It was meant to review cable digitization and terrestrial digitization of Doordarshan. But the reporting does not suggest that certain crucial issues came up. The general impression created by the media is that the ministry in the last few years has tirelessly pushed digitization. Tirelessly maybe, but not selflessly. It is a job half done that has so far benefited the government the most, by way of taxes, and the consumer the least. The broadcasters, multi-system operators (MSOs) and the local cable operators (LCOs) come somewhere in between. Deadlines have been pushed back for Phase III digitization covering all urban areas by more than a year partly because the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT) has been flooded with litigation involving broadcasters, MSOs, LCOs and direct-to-home(DTH) operators. Lots of messes to be sorted out, but the voices least heard are of those of subscribers. The poorer they are, a greater proportion of their household income they have to shell out now. An analysis done by Kotak Institutional Equities in January this year looked at the impact of taxation on consumer pricing of cable and documented that the combined impact of entertainment tax and service tax in three cities—Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata—is the highest on the starter pack, which is the cheapest pack on offer, for the lowest socioeconomic segments of the audience. (Tax as a percentage of consumer pricing is 32% on the starter pack in Mumbai as compared to 25% on the premium pack.) Yet the price of the starter packs before tax are the lowest in Mumbai, at Rs.160. So the government does need to look at this issue. Has anyone in government or the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) worked with broadcasters on the possibility of offering the consumer at the bottom of the ladder a basic package of 10-15 channels that they really want and pricing it accordingly? Cable starter packs today are priced well over Rs.200 a month, per TV set, in addition to the cost of the set-top box. People are clear they don't need a 100-plus channels to choose from when it hurts their budgets, but they are equally clear about which 10 or 15 they really want. Media reports say of Tuesday's meeting that in the ministry's presentation, specific reference was made to the initiatives undertaken by the ministry including discussions with stakeholders and the campaign to "sensitise the masses". I love that term. How about sensitization of those implementing digitization on the financial impact it is having on the "masses"? Then there is the question of terrestrial digitization for Doordarshan. The ministry and Prasar Bharati have to stop kidding themselves that rural viewers are still accessing TV largely through its terrestrial network and that Doordarshan is therefore the most watched broadcaster in rural India. It is not. Between 2006 and 2013, the percentages for rural TV access got reversed.