A large segment of India cannot afford paid television channels or platforms owned by private broadcasters. With a view to provide access to live broadcast of certain sporting events to a large number of viewers and listeners, the Sports Broadcasting Signals (Mandatory Sharing with Prasar Bharati) Act, 2007, 9″sPORTS aCT”) WAS ENACTED IN 2007.
The Act mandated the rights owners to share the live broadcast signals of “sporting events of national importance” with Prasar Bharati; and allowed Prasar Bharati to further retransmit these live signals on a free-to-air basis on its own terrestrial network (transmission through antenna) and DTH network (through its open-access DTH service DD FreeDish).
The mandatory sharing rule applies to events which are notified as sporting events of ‘national importance’ by the Union ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB) in consultation with the Union ministry of youth affairs and sports. Some such events are ODIs and T20 matches played by the Indian men’s cricket team, semi-finals and final of Men’s World Cup and ICC Champions Trophy, etc.
Public interest litigation recently filed before the Delhi high court challenges the key provisions of the Sports Act.
The challenge is primarily on the ground that in current times, the Sports Act fails to achieve its objective, and in fact prevents citizens of India from accessing sporting events of national importance for free. The basis of this contention appears to be that even though Prasar Bharati’s terrestrial and DTH networks are both evidently obsolete, the Sports Act does not permit Prasar Bharati to retransmit the live signals through any medium other than through its own terrestrial and DTH networks.
The matter is pending before the court. It will be interesting to see if the courts appreciate the fact that some legislations need to be revisited and amended over a period of time for reasons such as technological development. And especially if a legislation fails to serve the purpose for which it was enacted or for its inability to adapt to changes in technology.
In 2017, the Supreme Court while interpreting the Sports Act observed that it does not contemplate Prasar Bharati sharing the signals with cable operators. The MIB in October 2018 proposed an amendment to the law dealing with sporting events of national importance. The amendment sought to extend sharing of signals by Prasar Bharati to other networks where it is mandatory to carry Doordarshan channels like DD National and DD Sports. Since then, there have been no updates and the amendment has not yet come into force.
The proposed amendment recognises the need to revisit the Sports Act and broaden its scope. But it does not take note of the larger change that terrestrial and DTH have become obsolete, and with the advent of digital over-the-top (OTT) platforms, the number of subscribers to cable television is consistently reducing.
Statistics in a recent report by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India show that there are only 69.5 million active subscribers of DTH (excluding Doordarshan’s FreeDish) but 538 million mobile/wireless internet connections.
Against this fresh backdrop, merely expanding the scope of the Sports Act to include cable networks will not enable the Act to achieve its objective of providing access of such sporting events to a large number of viewers on a ‘free-to-air basis’.
Given the easy availability and access to content by use of mobile/wireless internet connections, the Sports Act should look beyond radio and television as mediums of distribution and also revisit the restrictions on Prasar Bharati in terms of permitted mediums of distribution under the Sports Act.―Times of India