The Indian TV rights saga

The missing picture

Indian cricket has now been without a regular television-rights holder for 437 days

Rahul Bhatia

October 20, 2005

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Sachin Tendulkar: if he makes runs, the interest will return © Getty Images
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Indian cricket has now been without a regular television-rights holder for 437 days. Before every series at home there is tension over broadcasts. We have seen this for over a year now, and today was no different. Five days before a series the rights were awarded. This is nothing but a desperate measure, a last-ditch decision that bought the board some more time. The BCCI has brought this trouble upon itself due to last year's open-ended invitation for bids. Due to a few loose words we've been to court with them just about every day, heard people speak in a strange language called legalese, and come back to court the next morning to hear some more. It will be a struggle to escape from this convoluted knot.

Prasar Bharati will cover 12 games over 35 days. Before long this time will be up, and will this issue be settled by then? Major optimism is required here. Brinkmanship has worked well for the board in the past, but surely they must be weary of this by now - and for once they are not even indulging in it. Had they sought a broadcaster years before the present broadcast term was over - as England did - instead of only a month, it is unlikely that the present impasse would exist. After all, big money was involved. Now the cracks over the rights issue are wider, the sums are greater, there is more at stake. "It's not about the money anymore," a source at ESPN-Star Sports said. "It's about [how badly] does the Murdoch empire want this...does the Chandra empire want this?"

At stake is viewership: 13 years after satellite television entered India, channels have been gradually moving toward the Direct-to-Home platform, which provides them with accurate viewer figures and gives consumers the option of customising their experience. The catch? It's expensive. So change has been a slow, reluctant process. Live sport and movies are recognised as the most attractive lures to this new platform. And so it is worth spending US$400million for four years and losing money on the investment.

But there are other considerations as well. Last month, after acquiring rights for football in India, Zee's head, Subhash Chandra, joked: "The stature of cricket in India has gone down drastically in the last few months. I wish I don't get the BCCI rights under the present circumstances. I will be happy promoting football." It is this turmoil that has seen interest in cricket flag for the first time since the match-fixing scandal broke. The source acknowledged that the perception of cricket had dipped, but he added: "one century by Sachin Tendulkar, and watch, everybody will return. I've seen it happen. We all just want magic. And that's something the BCCI knows as well. Everything will be forgotten."

But not for now. It is known that within the marketing committee are two camps: one with ESPN-Star Sports, and the other preferring Zee. Bindra, firmly entrenched in one of these, has accused the other camp, which includes Jagmohan Dalmiya, of loading this year's bid invitation in favour of one major broadcaster. Meanwhile, Zee has gone to court yet again, claiming that the requirements on the invite have ensured its exclusion and, as an incentive, has offered to drop all its court cases if the board awards it the rights. But the board is upset with Zee for the court cases of the past year. Even the channels are fed up.

Meanwhile, while series after series is awarded to Prasar Bharati, who once asked to be paid for broadcasts, the board can only count its lost earnings. The series against Australia and Pakistan were the jewels of the four-year rights, series whose value could be matched only by a private channel. Prasar Bharati ended up with them for a price so low that Bindra, who dreams of a channel run by the board, all but blew a gasket. These were earnings that should have been poured back into cricket, earnings that should not have been used for legal fees and regular meetings. It was shabby work. Considering how watertight the BCCI has been with its legal documents and agreements, one has to ask, was last year's tender document, where this all began, open to interpretation accidentally? Or was it done on purpose?

Rahul Bhatia is staff writer of Cricinfo

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