The stunning reverses suffered by the broadcasters before the judiciary in the recent times in view of its far-reaching implications in the ensuing times for the sports broadcasting industry, government’s broad policy framework and the audience. The Supreme Court in its judgment in August 2017 in the Sports Broadcasting Signals (Mandatory Sharing with Prasar Bharati) Act, 2007 which involved Star India and Prasar Bharati, had finally confirmed the Delhi High Court’s finding when it adjudicated that the original intent of the Act was to achieve twin purposes of making available a live feed of a sporting event of national importance to economically weaker section of the society and consequently, the same should be made available on a free or no cost basis. It was expected that the Apex Court’s verdict would put an end to a long-drawn battle spanning over a decade.
Triggering of Controversy
The Supreme Court whilst allowing the sporting events of national importance to be shared mandatorily with Prasar Bharati ruled that the public broadcaster cannot utilise it on a notified channel which has to be compulsorily carried by private distribution platforms. Although the ruling of the Supreme Court was not followed in letter and spirit by Prasar Bharati, it put the onus on sports broadcasters to take legal action against erring private commercial platforms carrying “live” sports feeds. Rather than encrypt Doordarshan’s feed, the Ministry ordered the Distribution Platform Operators to run a ticker stating that “the match/game can be viewed in free-to-air mode on DD Sports Channel, on DD Free Dish and DD’s terrestrial network”.
Whilst the Supreme Court put away any confusion on the Sports Act and a private commercial sporting event like IPL anyway ought not to be considered as sporting events of national importance, Smriti Irani who was piloting the I&B Ministry in April 2018 had other ideas.
During her time in Shastri Bhawan, it seemed Star India was wrong when it fiercely bid to acquire long-term exclusive media rights for the Indian Premier League along with BCCI International and Domestic Matches for an approximate value of INR 16,350 crores and INR 6,150 crores respectively.
The year 2017 was the first year for Star India after it acquired rights for the IPL and the Ministry inexplicably made them sweat out before granting temporary live up-linking permission for a live broadcast of the IPL matches on their channels till the very last moment. This was nothing else but to arm-twist Star India to share all the live matches of Indian Premier League with Doordarshan for free, even though IPL, which is a privately-owned club cricket league and can in no way be considered as a sporting event of national importance. In the end, Star India had no other option but to give something to the power that is and they gave in to share with Prasar Bharati the inaugural, the playoffs held on weekends and the last four matches of IPL, with a deferred live feed of at least 60 minutes. No surprise, Smriti Irani claimed victory for bringing IPL for the first time ever on Doordarshan.
Not getting the “live” feed of IPL matches and unable to make legislative moves to amend the judgement of the Supreme Court as she did not find support amongst her ministerial colleagues the Irani-led Ministry issued a notice mandating all sports channels broadcasting live sports of “national importance” to display a ticker stating the same match was also available on DD’s free-to-air platform squirming sports broadcasters. Not only are the rights-holders required to give live sports content free to DD as per the Sports Act, but they are also required to run a marketing campaign for Doordarshan to drive audiences away from themselves to go somewhere else to watch it.
Now, if the broadcasters believed that the Supreme Court’s decision on the Sports Act in August 2017 had finally settled the issue, unfortunately, it was not to be. On 24th October, the Ministry released a notice seeking feedback/comments on draft Sports Broadcasting Signals (Mandatory) sharing with Prasar Bharati (Amendment) Bill, 2018. The ministry wants to amend Section 3(1) of the Sports Act to ensure mandatory sharing of the signals of such sporting events with “other networks, where it is mandatory to show the Doordarshan channels as per the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act, 1995”.
Undoubtedly, then I&B minister Smriti Irani’s suggestion that BCCI’s the Indian Premier League (IPL), be covered under the Act has not been accepted by the sports ministry, headed by Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, who now also has charge of the I&B ministry; nevertheless, the latest move to amend the Act has again sent wrong signals. Such a move is prone to prompt broadcasters to revisit their investments in sporting rights.
Reluctance on the part of broadcasters to defer or abandon investments in picking up rights can culminate in a reduction of income of sports federations, which in turn would find it cumbersome to invest in the development and promotion of sport thereby entailing potential of deterioration in the overall sports ecosystem. Even if the present dispensation at the helm is insistent on carrying forward its move, then it would be advisable that rather than doing it in a piecemeal manner in forcing sports broadcasters to share more sporting events why doesn’t the Government nationalise at one go so there is clarity on sports broadcasting? This will also make Doordarshan the only sports broadcaster in the country and thus can ring-fence them from competition from private sports broadcasters!!