March 5, 2013

Cricket between the ads

Watching cricket on TV in India is getting depressing because of the inexcusable and illegitimate plethora of intrusive advertisements in the cricket telecasts

Can anyone see the score? © Ten Cricket

I had travelled to Chennai last week to watch the first India-Australia Test. The choice was obvious. Chennai is my hometown and the MA Chidambaram Stadium has given me so many happy memories I will cherish for a lifetime. India and Australia have often produced classics there; there was also the possibility of this being Sachin Tendulkar's last Test at Chepauk. I just had to be there. Over and above all these reasons, these days I have another great incentive to go to the cricket grounds because the alternative of watching it on TV is most depressing.

I have ranted extensively in the past about the horrible experience of attending matches in Indian grounds. It was pleasing to see Sambit Bal's column on the pain a fan endures at Indian grounds. For a sport which is trigger-happy to invoke management jargons in the context of the way the game is administered, the indifference to the fan (often called the consumer without an iota of irony) experience from both the administrators and the media at large is laughable.

While the atrocious ground experience is finally getting its share of attention from voices that have the reach, what is still largely ignored is the inexcusable and illegitimate plethora of intrusive advertisements in the cricket telecasts in India. BCCI honchos and its apologists in the media have been rattling out the humongous increase in cricket revenue in India as a justification for all the sweeping changes in our cricketing landscape. That most of the incremental revenue has come from either an irrational expansion of the schedule and/or illegitimate advertisements is hardly pointed out.

For those unfamiliar with cricket coverage in India: in addition to the commercial breaks between overs, there are ads between deliveries which occupy about a quarter of the screen. On inquiry, the industry insiders tell me that the cost of the part-screen ads during the over is more expensive than the full ads at the end of the over. In essence, the revenue model of cricket telecast has been turned on its head: there is a greater premium for infuriating the fans more.

What used to be 90 end-of-over ad opportunities in a day's play has now become a potential 90*6=540 ad opportunities, in addition to the existing 90. Cricket is definitely richer than before, but these riches exist in a vacuum where not only is there a huge dilution in the fundamental connect between the fan and the sport, but there is also a near total breakdown.

What should surely be a concern is that these intrusive ads are not only abominable but also illegitimate as per the laws of the land

The batsman walking out to bat isn't always considered worthy enough to be televised; ads pop up even before a ball reaches the boundary or an umpire gives his verdict for an appeal. At a time when sports telecast is getting better than ever across the world, cricket is plunging new depths when it is at its most prosperous, to the very fans who have contributed to its inflating financial might.

In my lifetime, outside of match-fixing, this is cricket's gravest crisis. When I started following cricket, the BCCI had to pay to get its matches covered. Now, the TV rights in India are the single biggest chunk of cricketing revenue all over. That the television coverage gives plentiful riches to the game becomes utterly irrelevant when you consider the fact that it's taking away the soul of the game in the bargain.

It's nibbling away at a new generation investing in the game. In a decade, you'll walk around neighbourhood grounds in India and will be confounded by kids walking to the crease without imitating their favorite stars, because they would have grown up in a world where there is cricket between ads. Would they ever understand why we looked up at the sun even when none existed, or nodded our head for no reason, or made those inelegant crotch adjustments while walking out to bat?

If the breakdown of the connect between the fan and the sport is not a big enough concern for the cricket administrators and the media (such a pity), what should surely be a concern is that these intrusive ads are not only abominable but also illegitimate as per the laws of the land.

As per the Cable Television Network Rules 1994, one of the advertising codes, is "(10) All advertisement should be clearly distinguishable from the programme and should not in any manner interfere with the programme viz., use of lower part of screen to carry captions, static or moving alongside the programme."

As if the existing regulatory guidelines were not clear enough, TRAI (which has recently taken over as the regulatory authority for cable television in India) made it absolutely unambiguous and targeted the sports broadcasters directly with the following guidelines:

"In case of live broadcast of a sporting event, the advertisements shall be carried only during the breaks in the sporting action. Every broadcaster shall ensure that the advertisements carried in its channels are only full-screen advertisements and there shall be no part-screen or drop-down advertisement."

In a reasonable and sane world, it should never have come to this. If not for the BCCI's implicit permission to let the intrusive ads in, the broadcasters wouldn't have been able to hijack the viewing experience of the fans who have invested with the game for years. That clearly establishes where the BCCI's priorities lie, when it comes to administering the game in India and their commitment to the patrons.

It's been an interesting month for BCCI. Competition Commission of India has come down hard on its efforts to stifle competition by abusing its dominant position with a bill of INR 520 million; the IT department is chasing the BCCI with a tax overdue bill amounting to INR 23000 million; Enforcement Directorate has found multiple transactions of the BCCI and some of the IPL franchises to be in violation of existing FEMA (Foreign Exchange Management Act) norms.

If TRAI decides to join the party and pull up the cricket broadcasters for consistent violation of the existing regulatory guidelines for cable television in India, it can send the post-IPL cricketing landscape into doldrums. The illegitimate riches accumulated over the last five years can be brought to a naught in little time. Boy, will I be delighted to see that!

If it never comes to that, as it probably will, one day I hope to become rich enough to be able to buy the television rights for Indian cricket and choose not to broadcast it at all. The BCCI gets the money it wants. Some of it will percolate down to the players and hence most of them will shut up. Fans will move on. Cricket will be left in a vacuum….a vacuum of riches…at least more legitimate than the ones it's bathing in right now.

When he's not watching / talking / tweeting / reading cricket, Mahesh Sethuraman works in a bank in India to pay his bills. He tweets @cornerd

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