Debate On Licensing TV Channels Shown Via Apps Heats Up

Tarun Katial, chief executive officer of Zee5, the video streaming platform of Zee Entertainment Enterprises Ltd, is a little taken aback by news reports that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is considering bringing in regulations for television channels that are shown on over-the-top (OTT) streaming platforms such as Zee5 and its competitors, including Hotstar and Voot, among others.

“TV content is already regulated. We strictly adhere to the guidelines set by the regulatory bodies. Hence, we do not see a need to regulate the same content on a digital platform,” he says. The sentiment is echoed by Karan Bedi, chief executive officer, MX Player, a streaming platform owned by Times Internet Ltd. Zee5 and MX Player stream original content, as well as TV channels owned by their companies. They also showcase TV channels operated by other broadcasters.

Earlier this month, The Economic Times had first reported that Trai may consider introducing licensing of TV channels on apps along the lines it has for broadcasters. Quoting unnamed officials from Trai, the report said that the regulatory body was exploring bringing the TV channels streamed via apps such as Hotstar, SonyLiv or Zee5, among others, under regulation or a licensing regime. The argument is that broadcasters are licensed to carry television programming, which is given to cable operators or direct-to-home (DTH) distributors. So when a third-party app like, say, a Hotstar or Zee5, shows these channels without paying carriage or license fee, it disrupts the level playing field.

TRAI is expected to issue a consultation paper on the matter within a couple of months. Broadcasters, especially those who have their own streaming platforms, are piqued. Privately, they expressed their disappointment with the proposal. A broadcast company’s executive, on condition of anonymity, said that the move is uncalled for. “Hope in TRAI’s lexicon, ‘regulation’ doesn’t mean ‘control’. As broadcasters get on with their businesses and have invested hugely in developing a direct B2C (business to consumer) model through OTT platforms, probably both TRAI and distribution platform operators (DPOs) feel left out. The DPOs probably feel their business model is under threat,” he added.

TRAI’s argument that if an app shows the same channels without paying carriage or licence fee, it disrupts the level playing field, is dismissed by independent media consultant Chintamani Rao. “This is complicated. Trai feels it is not a level playing field because cable operators and DTH operators are paying carriage fee to broadcasters. While that contention itself is debatable, even if it were true (that cable and DTH pay carriage fee), if a broadcaster is giving its content free, why is it a regulator’s problem?” he said.

Besides, he added that equating broadcasters with video streaming apps is unreasonable. “If cable and DTH are distribution platforms, so is OTT. They are all delivery platforms that service the same consumer,” he said, adding that broadcasters are licenced for 10 years, the cable trade is not. Adds Zee5’s Katial: “We are currently covered under the Information Technology Act, 2000, and since OTT is a personal medium unlike the broadcast business, having it moderated on the same terms as the latter will make it lose its essence. Having said that, we are cognizant of what goes on our platform and we continue to adhere to self-censorship to regulate the same.”

The broadcast industry executive mentioned earlier said that the move is being mulled at a time when streaming platforms are on the verge of take-off. “It’s to appease the large cable networks’ (known as multi-system operators or MSOs) lobby in the garb of parity.”

However, a cable TV industry veteran does not see this as a move to appease their industry. The fact is that viewers are shifting to OTT because of cheaper data. “Some OTT platforms are also offering TV channels for Rs. 1 a day for up to 20-25 channels. MSOs and DTH cannot offer that price for channels. Even the prized cricket matches come cheap on platforms like Hotstar. So, all that TRAI is saying is that TV channels on OTT apps are unregulated. Of course there is a pricing perspective, but what the regulator is also looking at is if, say, Star Sports or Zee wishes to utilize internet apps to reach customers, are they violating the downlinking laws.” However, he added that it is premature to comment on the move at the moment. “It’s just a trial balloon right now.” Broadcasters could probably do well without an extra layer of regulation.―Livemint

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