The government’s notification declaring some international sporting events as contests of national importance, a move that would force private broadcasters to share their coverage with state-owned Prasar Bharati, has possibly reopened a can of worms.
The notification said all Olympics Games, Commonwealth Games and Asian Games were events of national importance—a declaration that will certainly not please major private broadcasters that typically spend millions of dollars to acquire the prestigious coverage rights that effectively are their main source of sustainability.
Of course, ordinary sports fans couldn’t be happier. After all, they would get to watch all the events a sports fan would want to watch on public broadcaster Prasar Bharati’s Doordarshan television network across terrestrial and direct-to-home platforms without spending extra money.
Under the Sports Broadcasting Signals (Mandatory Sharing with Prasar Bharati) Act, 2007, no private broadcasting rights holder can telecast a “sporting event of national importance” live in India unless it simultaneously shares the signal – without any advertisements – with Prasar Bharati.
The public broadcaster can re-transmit the signal on its own terrestrial network and direct-to-home platform DD FreeDish.
Need for a fine balance
In an ideal world, all national sports ought to be accessible on free-to-air television as you want as many people as possible to watch the events.
At the same time, there needs to be a fine balance between ensuring that the sports broadcaster gets a commercially appropriate fee for its television rights and also manages to reach the wider population.
Private sports broadcasters will feel aggrieved with the notification, considering the obscene amount of money they usually spend on acquiring media rights to sporting events, particularly cricket. With media rights to the Indian Premier League (IPL) to be decided next months, it can become tricky for broadcasters.
IPL is not in the list of sporting events of national importance, but whichever broadcaster fails to win the IPL rights will go all out for rights to telecast Indian cricket matches being staged at home. And it will be an unfair deal for them as they are likely to spend more and then be forced to share the feed with DD.
Of course, they may argue that if the sporting events are of national importance, DD can share the cost during the purchase of the rights (say on a 75:25 or 60:40 ratio) as the BBC does in the UK.
The exclusivity factor
There is a strong likelihood that this move will also impact the overall value of BCCI media rights for India matches. This will also hurt the exclusivity factor for private sports channels. May be a middle ground could have been found by allowing DD to air only the highlights (as was the case in 1970s and much of 1980s) for free and at times the big finals when India is playing.
Cricket can still survive this blow but this policy will hurt non-cricket events most where there are few takers. These events try their hardest in major events like the Olympics, Asian Games or Commonwealth Games. DD can argue it will help in increasing the reach and base of the sports but the private channels may not be too pleased. Private channels may argue that since they have a free-to-air channel to cater the rural audience which is available on DD’s DishTV, what is the point of giving it all to DD for free?
Television rights are bought and sold in a free marketplace. Non-glamorous sports and their governing federations have very few big paydays. The biggest paydays -- the likes of an Olympic Games or Commonwealth Games or the All England Badminton final -- come from the private broadcasters. The counter-logic by the government can be that since it already gives such sports federations financial assistance, there is no need for them to worry about revenue from selling broadcasting rights.
Fight for survival
Worldwide, linear TV is already under immense pressure for survival because of changing technologies and over-the-top or OTT platforms. Revenue has been declining over the years and the cost of acquiring broadcast rights is going over the top.
Sports is big business. Gaining an audience can rejuvenate and transform a latent sport. We have the case study of Kabaddi’s glamorisation ever since Star won the telecast rights for the sport or Indian football’s gain with the Indian Super League being telecast on the channel.
If private broadcasters come into the picture, they bring in the money that eventually helps the sport because a part of the revenue goes back to the grassroots level, helping the sport keeping afloat.The latest notification would result in the availability of ‘sporting events of national importance’ to the wider audience; many of them, it has been feared, would prefer not to subscribe to costly private sports networks. Inevitably, broadcasters too will be left with no option but be forced to rationalise their media rights budget, which in turn will impact the overall valuation of the media rights. Ultimately, that will hit the money flowing towards a sport.