India confab eyes merits of new regulatory body

Content, ownership issues key debate

Government plans to introduce a content code and a bill that would introduce a new regulatory authority here were the subject of heated debate Monday at a New Delhi seminar organized by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.

Though the seminar was titled "Regulation in the Entertainment Sector," the issues debated largely pertained to the broadcasting sector, which fielded representatives from such news networks as New Delhi-based TV Today and Mumbai-based Times Global Broadcasting, among others.

Government representatives included senior officials from the Information and Broadcasting Ministry headed by I&B secretary Asha Swarup.

In recent months, industry and government have been hotly debating two primary issues — a content code and broadcast bill that includes the establishment of an autonomous regulatory authority, the Broadcast Regulatory Authority of India. India does not have a regulatory body equivalent to the U.K.'s Ofcom or the FCC in the U.S.

As expected, the industry strongly criticized the government on such issues as content regulation, restrictions on cross-media holdings and caps on foreign investment, which Mumbai-based diversified media group Reliance Entertainment chairman Amit Khanna called "absurd."

"If the government has allowed 100% foreign direct investment in the film industry, then why is there a 20% cap in news broadcasting, 49% in other broadcasting, with radio capped at 26%?" Khanna asked.

The draft of the proposed Broadcasting Services Regulation Bill 2007 also was criticized by Times Global Broadcasting CEO Sunil Lulla for "trying to shackle the industry."

BSRB proposals include granting the government the right to revoke a broadcaster's license "in the issues of public interest"; a requirement that 15% of airtime on foreign channels include locally produced Indian content; and compulsory carriage of at least three of statecaster Doordarshan's channels.

Broadcasting content has long been a thorny issue that in recent months has seen the I&B Ministry temporarily ban such channels as France-based Fashion TV and Sony Entertainment Television's AXN for showing "offensive" content.

The I&B Ministry claims that the establishment of the BRAI will offer a solution for viewers to complain about any content considered objectionable.

"As things stand, there seems to be an obvious trust deficit between the industry and government over these issues," I&B additional secretary Pradeep Singh said. "We are not here to overregulate the industry but the fact is, there is need for some form of regulation. Self-regulation by the industry is the basic premise of our proposals related to content, and by establishing a regulatory authority jointly with the industry, this can be better implemented."

Swarup said that, when it comes to cross-media holding restrictions and norms for locally produced content, "such guidelines are outlined in most countries. We want our kids to watch 'Pokemon' as much as they should watch 'Hanuman' (a recent animated feature based on an Indian god). We are also aware that media is converging, which is why we have proposed that every three years, the cap on foreign investment or cross-media holdings will be reviewed in various sectors and that such limits will … not be restricted further."

The bill is expected to be tabled in the monsoon session of parliament in August for further debate before it can be finally ratified.

But Khanna argued that "there is no need to rush such a major notification. This needs more time for discussion."