Television rights controversy January 10, 2006

No to a culture of freebies

It¹s not the ideal solution, but compared to what was, Prasar Bharati¹s decision to not broadcast the Test series live will do for now



Unfortunately, the quality cricket on view has been sidelined in the face of rights and private property © Getty Images
It's not the ideal solution, but compared to what was, Prasar Bharati's decision to not broadcast the Test series live will do for now. There are those, including the government, who argue that putting free cricket on every television in India is not only good, but also national duty. They're missing the point: seizing legally acquired private property for public consumption is illegal.

Ever since the government issued a directive that sports channels would have to share their feed with Doordarshan, the state-run broadcaster, officials in private channels spoke of challenging the ordinance in court. It was absolutely illegal and utter piracy, they said, and could not believe that a move this daring was even made. And yet there was uncertainty and anxiety about what the future held for them. The BCCI television bids were up for grabs and besides the hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, channels needed the cricket to switch to the direct-to-home platform. Cricket and movies, they believed, and still do, were the only way of attracting millions of subscribers to the new platform. And since every channel already had movies, cricket was their holy grail. It was known that Rupert Murdoch wanted these rights.

The ordinance is short-sighted, and while it is designed to gratify the country temporarily, the damage it causes is significant. What is safe? What is private property? What is in the public interest? Where is the line drawn? The issue had much more at stake than just cricket. Rightly so, it was argued that the government's move was not "in the public interest", as was claimed. The government's words were words meant to confuse. What they really should have been was, "this is what the public is interested in". If this is what it took to pass the directive, it is remarkable and opens a whole new world for the Indian public, who may be interested in free porn, free phone connections, free airfare, and 365 days of no work.

A lawyer who worked with Ten Sports when they last approached the courts with a similar complaint in 2004 said that, as a defense, Prasar Bharati used a Supreme Court ruling from 1996 in a case between the Union of India and the Cricket Association of Bengal. This is the offending bit of the ruling by Justice Jeevan Reddy: "Airwaves constitute public property and must be utilized for advancing public good. No individual has a right to utilize them at his choice and pleasure and for purposes of his choice including profit. The right of free speech guaranteed by Article 19S does not include the right to use airwaves, which are public property." It goes on to give the state control of the airwaves. And since the airwaves have already opened in India, it hangs over the heads of broadcasters like an axe, ready to be used by Prasar Bharati when it suits them.

Doordarshan has suggested that the 25-75% revenue-sharing agreement will more than offset Ten Sports' losses, but it is entirely within the private channel¹s rights to use the signals as it wishes. Doordarshan's backing down is not a victory at all. The victory can only come if the ordinance's constitutional validity is challenged in the Supreme Court or not ratified in parliament, but that might be asking for too much because, as the lawyer put it, in the media glare nobody wants to be seen as anti-populist.

It's not about the cricket, it never has been; it's about popularity and rights and private property. So Ten Sports can do its work until the one-dayers, when this drama could be played out once again. It's important that this is not repeated. If private channels continue to suffer this way, they'll simply turn to managing something less stressful and more profitable, and the only ones who will suffer are us.

Rahul Bhatia is staff writer of Cricinfo Magazine