Mumbai: Indian television broadcasters are set to take the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to court over frequent changes and using incorrect methodology in its amended tariff order, said people with knowledge of the matter. They are likely to do so under the banner of the Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) and may also file their own petitions in various high courts, seeking a stay on the amendments.

Trai issued the amendments to its tariff order – which take effect on March 1 on January 1. It limited the discounting on TV channels bouquets to 33%, while also reducing the maximum retail price (MRP) of channels in those bouquets to Rs 12 from Rs 19. Broadcasters argue that Trai’s contention that so-called a la carte prices are illusory because of the bouquet discounts has no sound basis.

They also say that Trai has compared MRPs in the new regulatory regime with wholesale rates declared by broadcasters in the pre-digitisation era, which doesn’t take into account the sharp rise in costs, especially for content. Furthermore, frequent changes have created regulatory uncertainty among stakeholders, adversely affecting growth of the sector, according to them.

“The broadcasting sector is the largest segment of the media and entertainment sector in India and contributes significantly to the Indian economy by creating employment, generating income and having a significant multiplier effect on the economy,” said the top executive at a large broadcast network.

“If Trai does not understand the creative sector and continues to micromanage it, this will lead to shutting down of networks, leading to loss of jobs,” the executive said. The changes have unified the top four broadcasters – Star-Disney India, Zee Entertainment Enterprises, Sony Pictures Networks India and Viacom18 – against the regulator. The top executives of these networks are planning to address a joint press conference in Mumbai on Friday, in what’s being seen as an unprecedented move. Three of the four didn’t attend a meeting called by Trai on Thursday.

Only the Viacom18 representative met Trai officials. “Trai had called us to discuss the implications of the new amendments,” said one executive. “But we have already informed them that we are not happy with the new rules and no point discussing anything with them anymore.” The broadcasters say that when it began regulating the broadcast sector in 2004, Trai had declared that market forces would decide prices. “But even in 2020, the stated position of Trai is nowhere in the horizon,” another broadcaster said.

In the past 15 years of regulating the broadcast sector, Trai has issued more than 36 tariff orders and ancillary regulations. All of them have been challenged by one stakeholder or the other and set aside by various judicial forums, the broadcasters say. “The approach of Trai is unfathomable as it framed its tariff policies for the telecom sector, which is an essential service, under tariff forbearance regime from 2003 onwards, whereas it tightly controls a non-essential service like broadcasting with price control regulations,” said another broadcasting executive. India has 350 broadcasters, comprising large, medium, small and very small ones, which offer more than 900 TV channels.

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