January 23, 2007

The wrong signals

The dispute over cricket broadcast rights is avoidable and a betrayal of the fans' interests



Half the cricket world - England, South Africa, Pakistan - could watch India take on West Indies on January 21, but more than half in India couldn't © AFP

The Indian cricket fan's anxieties will have lessened following the compromise brokered by the Delhi High Court allowing Doordarshan, the state-owned free-to-air channel, to telecast - with a seven-minute delay - the second one-day international between India and West Indies on Wednesday. That is in addition to the telecast by Neo Sports, the pay channel promoted by Nimbus Communication, which owns the global television rights to Indian cricket.

It was inevitable - the stakes were just too high for it not to happen - but experience suggests that this is merely a temporary reprieve. The bigger question is how and why it was allowed to come to such a pass. The issue was hardly new, nor was this the first time that the courts had been called on to broker a solution. Yet, none of the stake-holders - Doordarshan (DD), Nimbus Communications, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) - chose to act in time. Perhaps each was waiting for the other party to blink.

As a game of brinksmanship, it was both disastrous and farcical. Half the cricket world - England, South Africa, Pakistan - could watch India take on West Indies on January 21, but more than half in India couldn't.

The facts of the case are clear: Nimbus Communication refused to provide DD - the sole broadcaster to half of India's 100 million television homes - the live feed for the match unless DD agreed to encrypt its feed. The national Information and Broadcasting Ministry called the decision "unpatriotic" and said it was contemplating a law ensuring that rights holders share the cricket feed with the state-owned channel. No doubt, the move has popular support.

It's a similar situation in England, where the decision by the England and Wales Cricket Board to award exclusive rights for the telecast of home cricket, both international and domestic, to Sky Sports, a pay channel, drew wide criticism from cricket fans used to watching domestic cricket on BBC and home Tests on Channel 4, both free-to-air channels. The deal, worth ₤220 million, made live cricket inaccessible to nearly 70% of television viewers in the UK and the ECB was roundly vilified for compromising the wider interests of the game. Yet, the board was left with little choice because the bid from Channel 4 was far less than the Sky offer, and the ECB's primary stake- holders, the counties, backed the highest bid.

Most of all, though, the Indian government cannot claim to champion a free-market economy while abusing its basic principles by seeking to bully a rights-holder in the name of public interest

The difference in India is that while the ₤35 monthly fee for the Sky package is considered exorbitant by many consumers in England, paying for TV isn't even an option for India's rural millions. To that extent, the government is justified in trying to protect the interests of the public, because cricket, it can be argued, is not strictly a private event even though it is conducted by the BCCI, which is a private body.

But Doordarshan's case with Nimbus isn't strictly about public interest. At the heart of the dispute is the battle for eyeballs that ultimately translates into advertising revenue. Nimbus paid a hefty $612 million for the rights and is entitled to fight to protect its territory. Doordarshan has paid nothing, and has nothing to lose. Every rupee it can earn from televising the matches is a bonus. Yet it has chosen, either through sheer negligence and incompetence or because of arrogance and greed, or quite possibly a mix of all the above, not to comply with a reasonable request to encrypt the live feed to ensure that it isn't freely available for redistribution by cable operators in India and other satellite networks abroad.

Doordarshan's argument is that encryption is beyond its technical means. If that indeed is the case, and it sounds suspiciously like crying wolf, then it is obliged to get its act together. It is not the first instance that Doordarshan has come into conflict with a rights owner. In fact there is a pattern to this - ESPN and Ten Sports have already fought court cases against Doordarshan - and it does raise the question of whether Doordarshan is dragging its feet on encryption because it wants to retain its market share in cable homes as well.

In the past, there also have been disputes over the nature of the feed. During India's tour to Pakistan in 2005-06, Ten Sports, the rights holder, refused to give in to Doordarshan's demand for a clean feed (without advertisements) on the grounds that its financial interests would be compromised. In this case, Nimbus has agreed to a 75:25 share of the advertising revenue in their favour, which is a fair deal considering Doordarshan haven't paid a penny for the rights.

The blackout of the first match was a discredit to all, not the least to the BCCI which, as the custodians of Indian cricket, is morally responsible for ensuring the widest possible coverage for the game. It is impossible to ignore the fact that the BCCI is currently headed by a man who is an influential member of the Indian government.

Most of all, though, the Indian government cannot claim to champion a free-market economy while abusing its basic principles by seeking to bully a rights-holder in the name of public interest. As India's true national sport, cricket must be made accessible to everyone who wants to watch it. And a straightforward solution is available. This is a matter that warrants closure.

Who do you think is to blame for the farcical dispute over the telecast of cricket? Tell us here

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine

Comments